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Mother birds 'engineer' their offspring

Amount of androgen in eggs alters the development and behavior of nestlings

University of Chicago Press Journals

Current research emphasizes the role of maternal effects in fostering the adaptation of organisms to a changing environment. In birds, mothers pass androgens to their eggs, and these hormones have been shown to influence the development and behavior of nestlings. Since these effects may persist in adulthood, it has been suggested that avian mothers may engineer, so to speak, the adult phenotype of their offspring. Although abundant research in a variety of species has examined these questions, little is known on whether differences between species in levels of egg androgens are related to differences in the ecology of species. Diego Gil, from the Spanish Museum of Natural History, and coauthors (Clotilde Biard, André Lacroix, Claire Spottiswoode, Nicola Saino, Marisa Puerta, and Anders P. Møller) from several universities in Europe, show in a paper in the June issue of The American Naturalist that several differences in avian life history have coevolved with differences in yolk androgens. Thus, the relative amount of time that a developing bird spends in the egg and in the nest is positively related to androstenedione, one of the main egg androgens. That is to say, bird species that have relatively long incubation periods and short nestling periods for their body size have higher concentration of androstenedione than those species whose developmental time is shifted towards relatively longer stays in the nest than in the egg. Another pattern that emerges is a positive relationship between egg levels of androstenedione and colony size, suggesting that mothers prepare their offspring for the social conditions that they will experience as adults. These data provide evidence that facultative maternal effects at the individual level are linked to evolutionary transitions between species, suggesting a role of phenotypic plasticity in supporting adaptative patterns.


Diego Gil (Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, CSIC), Clotilde Biard (Université Pierre et Marie Curie), André Lacroix (Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, CNRS), Claire Spottiswoode (University of Cambridge), Nicola Saino (Università degli Studi di Milano), Marisa Puerta (Universidad Complutense de Madrid), and Anders P. Møller (Université Pierre et Marie Curie), "Evolution of yolk androgens in birds: development, coloniality and sexual dichromatism" American Naturalist (2007), 169:802-819 DOI: 10.1086/516652

Founded in 1867, The American Naturalist is one of the world's most renowned, peer-reviewed publications in ecology, evolution, and population and integrative biology research. AmNat emphasizes sophisticated methodologies and innovative theoretical syntheses in the effort to advance the knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles.

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