Mild stress during development affects the phenotype of great tit **Parus major** nestlings: a challenge experiment
Faculty of Sciences. Biology
Biological journal of the Linnean Society. - London
, p. 103-110
University of Antwerp
Conditions experienced during early development may affect both adult phenotype and performance later during life. Phenotypic traits may hence be used to indicate past growing conditions and predict future survival probabilities. Relationships between phenotypic markers and future survival are, however, highly heterogeneous, possibly because poor- and high-quality individuals cannot be morphologically discriminated when developing under good environmental conditions. Sub-optimal breeding conditions, in contrast, may unmask poor-quality individuals in a measurable way at the morphological level. We thus predict stronger associations between phenotype and performance under stress. In this field study, we test this hypothesis, experimentally challenging the homeostasis of great tit (Parus major) nestlings by short-term deprivation of parental care, which had no immediate effect on nestling fitness. The experiment was replicated during two subsequent breeding seasons with contrasting ambient weather conditions. Experimental (short-term) stress affected tarsus growth but not residual mass at fledging, whereas ambient (continuous) stress affected residual mass but not tarsus growth. Short-term stress effects on tarsus length and tarsus fluctuating asymmetry were only apparent when ambient conditions were unfavourable. Residual mass and hatching date, but none of the other phenotypic traits, predicted local survival, whereby the strength of the relationship did not vary between both years. Because effects of stress on developmental homeostasis are likely to be trait-specific and condition-dependent, studies on the use of phenotypic markers for individual fitness should integrate multiple traits comprising different levels of developmental complexity.