Social environment during egg laying: Changes in plasma hormones with no consequences for yolk hormones or fecundity in female Japanese quail, Coturnix japonica
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The social environment can have profound effects on an individual's physiology and behaviour and on the transfer of resources to the next generation, with potential consequences for fecundity and reproduction. However, few studies investigate all of these aspects at once. The present study housed female Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) in pairs or groups to examine the effects on hormone concentrations in plasma and yolk and on reproductive performance. Circulating levels of androgens (testosterone and 5-α-dihydrotestosterone) and corticosterone were measured in baseline samples and after standardised challenges to assess the responsiveness of the females' endocrine axes. Effects of the social environment on female fecundity were analysed by measuring egg production, egg mass, fertilization rates, and number of hatched offspring. Counter to expectation, females housed in pairs had higher plasma androgen concentrations and slightly higher corticosterone concentrations than females housed in groups, although the latter was not statistically significant. Pair vs. group housing did not affect the females' hormonal response to standardised challenges or yolk testosterone levels. In contrast to previous studies, the females' androgen response to a gonadotropin-releasing hormone challenge was not related to yolk testosterone levels. Non-significant trends emerged for pair-housed females to have higher egg-laying rates and higher fertility, but no differences arose in egg weight or in the number, weight or size of hatchlings. We propose that our unexpected findings are due to differences in the adult sex ratio in our social treatments. In pairs, the male may stimulate female circulating hormone levels more strongly than in groups where effects are diluted due to the presence of several females. Future studies should vary both group size and sex composition to disentangle the significance of sexual, competitive and affiliative social interactions for circulating and yolk hormone levels, and their consequences for subsequent generations.
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