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Stress and Increase of the Corticosterone Level Prevent Imprinting in Ducklings

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A prior study (WEISS, KÖHLER & LANDSBERG, 1976) stated that age increasing within a period of 12 to 28 hrs after hatching the Corticosterone level in blood increases. The hypothesis was that these increase of hormones were one of the factors limiting the sensitive period. This was proved by means of two experiments. 1. Ducklings within the sensitive period could not be imprinted if they were exposed to stress before imprinting. Their Corticosterone level was higher than the one of ducklings 25 to 30 hrs of age, whose sensitive period has already ended. 2. The primary effect of Corticosterone was examined eliciting the secretion exclusively endogenously instead by an environmental stimulus. For this purpose ACTH was applicated. The ducklings showed less liability to be imprinted, however, they showed no increase of Corticosterone. This was only found when the ducklings were exposed to both, application of ACTH as well as imprinting. Evidently, the cells secreting Corticosteronc are only mobilized to a later stronger secretion at the point of imprinting. Applied doses of ACTH, which were to small to prevent imprinting, had caused a comparable increase of the Corticosterone level after the beginning of imprinting as did larger doses of ACTH. The secretion of Corticosterone did not last as long, though, and during imprinting already it decreased underneath the value of ducklings 21 to 25 hrs of age, whose sensitive period is ending at this point. Imprinting eventually is an artificially isolated part of process of early learning. Certainly we are dealing with a multi-dimensional developmental process of the young bird, where it becomes acquainted with the environment and differentiates other stimuli which more and more elicit fear behaviour. Sometimes the growing fear behaviour was held responsible for the termination of the sensitive period. The increase of the Corticosterone level explains the increase of fear behaviour. Only 8% of the Corticosterone level is determined by age so that a series of environmental factors certainly are determining the hormone concentration, also. This is one more hint for rejecting "explanations in terms of purely endogenous changes in motivation" (BATESON, 1964a, p. 100) and pleading for a multi-dimensional system (HINDE, 1962b).

Affiliations: 1: Fachbereich Biologie and Fachbereich Veterinärmedizin, Freie Universität Berlin, and Zoological Garden, Berlin, Germany


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