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Variation in circulating corticosterone levels is associated with altitudinal range expansion in a passerine bird

Elizabeth A. Addis, Jason E. Davis, Brooks E. Miner and John C. Wingfield
Oecologia
Vol. 167, No. 2 (October 2011), pp. 369-378
Published by: Springer in cooperation with International Association for Ecology
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41499951
Page Count: 10
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Variation in circulating corticosterone levels is associated with altitudinal range expansion in a passerine bird
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Abstract

Organisms frequently need to adjust physiological mechanisms to successfully breed in novel habitats. To explore how some populations physiologically acclimate to novel environmental conditions while others do not, we examine three subspecies of the white-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys. Of these subspecies, Z. l. pugetensis has expanded its breeding range to high altitude over the last 60 years. We investigate physiological acclimation to high altitude conditions by comparing circulating levels of glucocorticoids among Z. l. gambelii, which only breeds at high altitude, Z. l. nuttalli, which only breeds at low altitude, a population of Z. l. pugetensis that breeds at low altitude, and a Z. l. pugetensis population that now breeds at high altitude. Glucocorticoids mediate physiological and behavioral responses to environmental conditions and are constitutively secreted, but can also be released facultatively. We hypothesized that elevation of the glucocorticoid corticosterone (CORT) may facilitate breeding in high altitude environments. We tested this hypothesis by comparing baseline and stress-induced CORT levels of subspecies breeding at low altitude, Z. l. pugetensis and Z. l. nuttalli, to subspecies breeding at high altitude, Z. l. pugetensis and Z. l. gambelii. We found that populations breeding at high altitude exhibit higher baseline and stress-induced levels of CORT. Additionally, we found that Z. l. pugetensis exhibit greater variation in the stress-induced CORT response. These results suggest an importance of modulation of hormonal mechanisms in facilitating breeding in high altitude environments, and that variation in these mechanisms may be associated with facilitating altitudinal range expansion.

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