Covariation among glucocorticoid regulatory elements varies seasonally in house sparrows

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Glucocorticoids (GCs) help individuals cope with changes throughout life; one such change is the seasonal transition through life-history stages. Previous research shows that many animals exhibit seasonal variation in baseline GCs and GC responses to stressors, but the effects of season on other aspects of GC regulation have been less studied. Moreover, whether elements of GC regulation covary within individuals and whether covariation changes seasonally has been not been investigated. Evolutionarily, strong linkages among GC regulatory elements is predicted to enhance system efficiency and regulation, however may reduce the plasticity necessary to ensure appropriate responses under varying conditions. Here, we measured corticosterone (CORT), the major avian GC, at baseline, after exposure to a restraint stressor, and in response to dexamethasone (to assess negative feedback capacity) in wild house sparrows (Passer domesticus) during the breeding and molting seasons. We also measured hippocampal mRNA expression of the two receptors primarily responsible for CORT regulation: the mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid receptors (MR and GR, respectively). Consistent with previous studies, restraint-induced CORT was lower during molt than breeding, but negative-feedback was not influenced by season. Receptor gene expression was affected by season, however, as during breeding, the ratio of MR to GR expression was significantly lower than during molt. Furthermore, MR expression was negatively correlated with CORT released in response to a stressor, but only during molt. We found that individuals that most strongly up-regulated CORT in response to restraint were also most effective at reducing CORT via negative feedback; although these relationships were independent of season, they were stronger during molt.


General and Comparative Endocrinology, v. 183, p. 32-37

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