Hormonal Correlates of Dominance and Starvation-induced Aggression in Chicks of the Blue-footed Booby

Authors

  • Alejandra Nuǹz-de la Mora,

    1. Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas and Centro de Ecología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and Department of Zoology, University of Washington, Seattle
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  • Hugh Drummond,

    Corresponding author
    1. Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas and Centro de Ecología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and Department of Zoology, University of Washington, Seattle
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  • John C. Wingfield

    1. Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas and Centro de Ecología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and Department of Zoology, University of Washington, Seattle
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Centro de Ecología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Aptdo. Postal 70–275, Ciudad Universitaria, 04510 México, DF, México.

Abstract

In the blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii), the first-hatched chick aggressively dominates its sibling and sometimes kills it when food is in short supply. To investigate the endocrine correlates of dominance-subordinance and hunger-induced agonism, we deprived 15–20-d-old single-chick and two-chick broods of food during 48 h by taping chicks' necks to prevent ingestion of parentally provided food (a protocol used previously and known to elicit escalated sibling fighting). We monitored weight and levels of circulating testosterone, oestradiol and corticosterone in deprived and normally fed broods comprising singletons, seniors (= dominants) and juniors (= subordinates), and observed behaviour to verify that aggression increased in deprived two-chick broods. During the 2 d of fasting, experimental chicks lost on average 6% of their baseline weight. After normal feeding was reinstated, seniors and singletons recovered normal (control) weight, but juniors remained significantly lighter than controls. No testosterone was detected in any nestling, but baseline corticosterone level was 109% higher in juniors than in seniors or singletons, implying that elevated corticosterone in juniors is a consequence of social subordination and may facilitate submissive behaviour. Although there was evidence that aggression of seniors increased under food deprivation, the increase was not accompanied by the rise in levels of testosterone expected under the ‘Challenge hypothesis’ (Wingfield et al. 1990). This result implies that this hypothesis probably does not apply to booby nestlings in the context of starvation-induced aggression. During the 2 d deprivation period, corticosterone levels of experimental chicks increased significantly, then declined to baseline levels a day after tapes were removed. The increase was probably due to the combined effects of starvation and frustration. We suggest that corticosterone could alter responsiveness of nestling blue-footed boobies to external stimuli, resulting in more aggression by dominants and greater readiness of subordinates to submit.

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