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Glucocorticoid Manipulations in Free-Living Animals: Considerations of Dose Delivery, Life-History Context, and Reproductive State

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1. Experimental glucocorticoid (GC) manipulations can be useful for identifying the mechanisms that drive life history and fitness variation in free-living animals, but predicting the effects of GC treatment can be complicated. Much of the uncertainty about the effects of GC manipulations stems from their multi-faceted role in organismal metabolism, and their variable influence with respect to life-history stage, ecological context, age, sex, and individual variation.2. Glucocorticoid hormones have been implicated in the regulation of parental care in many vertebrate taxa but in two seemingly contradictory ways, which sets up a potential corticosterone-induced “reproductive conflict”. GCs mediate adaptive physiological and behavioural responses to stressful events, and elevated levels can lead to trade-offs between reproductive effort and survival (e.g. the current reproduction versus survival hypothesis). The majority of studies examining the fitness effects of GC manipulations extend from this hypothesis. However, when animals are not stressed (likely most of the time) baseline GCs act as key metabolic regulators of daily energy balance, homeostasis, osmoregulation, and food acquisition, with pleiotropic effects on locomotor activity or foraging behaviour. Slight increases in circulating baseline levels can then have positive effects on reproductive effort (e.g. the corticosterone fitness/adaptation hypotheses), but comparatively few GC manipulation studies have targeted these small, non-stress induced increases.3. We review studies of GC manipulations and examine the specific hypotheses used to predict the effects of manipulations in breeding wildlife. We argue that given the dichotomous function of GCs the current ‘reproduction versus survival’ paradigm is unnecessarily restrictive and predicts only deleterious GC effects on fitness. Therefore, a broader set of hypotheses should be considered when testing the fitness effects of GC manipulations.4. When framing experimental manipulation studies, we urge researchers to consider three key points: life-history context (e.g. long- vs. short-lived, semelparous vs. iteroparous, etc), ecological context, and dose delivery.
DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.12482
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Crossin,G.T., Love, O.P., Cooke, S.J. and Williams, T.D. 2016. Glucocorticoid manipulations in free-living animals: considerations of dose delivery, life-history context, and reproductive state. Functional Ecology 30: 116–125. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.12482
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Functional Ecology
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Glucocorticoid manipulations in free-living animals: considerations of dose delivery, life-history context, and reproductive state
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