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Plasma testosterone levels of male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) during the breeding cycle and in relation to song and paternal care

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In temperate-zone birds, seasonal testosterone (T) profiles often vary among species with different mating systems. The trade-off hypothesis suggests that T levels in male birds represent a trade-off between additional mating effort, stimulated by high T, and paternal effort, inhibited by high T. To study the role of T in mediating the trade-off between paternal and mating effort in the facultatively polygynous European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), we monitored seasonal fluctuations in T levels and song activity, which functions mainly in mate attraction, and we investigated natural covariation between plasma T levels and male parental and song behaviour during the parental phase. T concentrations peaked during nest building, remained high during the fertile period, and then decreased gradually during the period of paternal care. This resembles the profile typically found in polygynous species with biparental care. Seasonal variation in song activity paralleled seasonal changes in T. The proportion of time spent incubating was significantly negatively correlated with T levels in individual males. There was a positive, but non-significant, correlation between song activity at an additional nest box and T levels during incubation. We suggest that this negative correlation between T and incubation behaviour may be partly explained by T increases in males responding to the presence of prospecting females with additional nestbox occupation and mate attraction song, rather than that high T levels stimulate mate attraction song. During the feeding period, characterized by a very low availability of unmated females, variation in T levels was low and there was no covariation between T and feeding. T levels during the parental phase reflect, but do not seem to directly regulate, the trade-off between parental and additional mating effort and other factors such as opportunities for additional matings may influence the resolution of this reproductive trade-off.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Biology, University of Antwerp, CDE, Universiteitsplein 1, B-2610 Wilrijk, Belgium; 2: Laboratory of Neuroplasticity and Neuroproteomics, K.U. Leuven, Naamsestraat 59, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium; 3: Laboratory of Comparative Endocrinology, K.U. Leuven, Naamsestraat 61, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium

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