Seasonal changes of the adrenocortical response to stress in birds of the Sonoran desert

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Abstract

Many avian species of the North American Sonoran desert, e.g., the black-throated sparrow, Amphispiza bilineata, cactus wren, Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, and curve-billed thrasher, Toxostoma curvirostre, can potentially breed from March/April to August. It is possible that, at least in summer, intense heat and aridity may have inhibitory effects on breeding by precipitating a stress response. Stress typically results in a rise in secretion of adrenocorticosteroid hormones that then inhibit reproduction by suppressing release of gonadal hormones. However, we found that plasma levels of corticosterone were not higher during summer, compared with winter, even in 1989 when summer temperatures were higher than normal. In June 1990, temperatures were also above normal and soared to the highest level recorded in Arizona (50°C). Plasma levels of corticosterone during June were high in black-throated sparrows, but less so in two other species (Abert's towhee, Pipilo aberti, and Inca dove, Scardafella inca) found in more shady riparian and suburban habitat with constant access to water. The adrenocortical response to stress (as measured by the rate of corticosterone increase following capture) was reduced in the hottest summer months in black-throated sparrows, cactus wrens, and curve-billed thrashers, but less so in Abert's towhee an Inca dove. These data suggest that at least some birds breeding in the open desert with restricted access to water are able to suppress the classical adrenocortical response to stress. The response is then reactivated in winter after breeding has ceased. It is possible that this stress modulation may allow breeding to continue despite severe heat. Analysis of plasma from these species indicated that the apparent modulation of the adrenocortical response to stress was not an artifact of reduced affinity or capacity of corticosterone binding proteins. © 1992 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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