Latitudinal variation in avian life histories falls along a slow-fast pace of life continuum: tropical species produce small clutches, but have a high survival probability, while in temperate species the opposite pattern is found. This study investigated whether differential investment into reproduction and survival of tropical and temperate species is paralleled by differences in the secretion of the vertebrate hormone corticosterone (CORT). Depending on circulating concentrations, CORT can both act as a metabolic (low to medium levels) and a stress hormone (high levels) and, thereby, influence reproductive decisions. Baseline and stress-induced CORT was measured across sequential stages of the breeding season in males and females of closely related taxa of stonechats (Saxicola spp) from a wide distribution area. We compared stonechats from 13 sites, representing Canary Islands, European temperate and East African tropical areas. Stonechats are highly seasonal breeders at all these sites, but vary between tropical and temperate regions with regard to reproductive investment and presumably also survival.
In accordance with life-history theory, during parental stages, post-capture (baseline) CORT was overall lower in tropical than in temperate stonechats. However, during mating stages, tropical males had elevated post-capture (baseline) CORT concentrations, which did not differ from those of temperate males. Female and male mates of a pair showed correlated levels of post-capture CORT when sampled after simulated territorial intrusions. In contrast to the hypothesis that species with low reproduction and high annual survival should be more risk-sensitive, tropical stonechats had lower stress-induced CORT concentrations than temperate stonechats. We also found relatively high post-capture (baseline) and stress-induced CORT concentrations, in slow-paced Canary Islands stonechats.
Our data support and refine the view that baseline CORT facilitates energetically demanding activities in males and females and reflects investment into reproduction. Low parental workload was associated with lower post-capture (baseline) CORT as expected for a slow pace of life in tropical species. On a finer resolution, however, this tropical-temperate contrast did not generally hold. Post-capture (baseline) CORT was higher during mating stages in particular in tropical males, possibly to support the energetic needs of mate-guarding. Counter to predictions based on life history theory, our data do not confirm the hypothesis that long-lived tropical populations have higher stress-induced CORT concentrations than short-lived temperate populations. Instead, in the predator-rich tropical environments of African stonechats, a dampened stress response during parental stages may increase survival probabilities of young. Overall our data further support an association between life history and baseline CORT, but challenge the role of stress-induced CORT as a mediator of tropical-temperate variation in life history.