CIE Spotlight: Divorce in the socially monogamous zebra finch: Hormonal mechanisms and reproductive consequences

Ondi C., Kate B. and Ben F.

Ondi C., Kate B. and Ben F.

Authors: Crino, Ondi L.; Buchanan, Katherine L.; Fanson, Benjamin G.; Hurley, Laura L.; Smiley, Kristina O.; Griffith, Simon C.

Source: HORMONES AND BEHAVIOR, 87 155-163, JAN 2017

Brief summary of the paper: Up to 80% of all bird species are socially monogamous. Divorce (switching partners) or pair disruption (due to the death of a partner) has been associated with decreased reproductive success, suggesting social monogamy is a strategy that may maximize fitness via coordination between partners. Previous studies have demonstrated the effects of divorce and pair disruption on immediate reproductive success.

Here, we used a paired experimental design in the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) to examine the hormonal mechanisms that modulate parental behavior and reproductive success in response to a partnership change (hereafter divorce). Specifically, we examined the effects of divorce on the avian stress hormone corticosterone (CORT) in both parents and nestlings, parental behaviors (incubation and nestling provisioning), prolactin (PRL), and reproductive success.

We found that divorce resulted in delayed clutch initiation, reduced clutch mass, and an increase in nestling CORT response to a standardized stressor. These effects on reproductive investment and chick CORT response were not clearly determined by parental endocrine responses. Divorce had no effect on the level of parental CORT. PRL levels were highly correlated within a pair regardless of treatment, were negatively related to the investment that males made in incubation, and increased in experimental males as a result of pair disruption.

This study demonstrates the fundamental impact which divorce has not only on reproduction, but also the physiological stress responses of offspring and suggests that in socially monogamous animals the maintenance of a stable partnership over time could be advantageous for long term fitness.