Circulating corticosterone levels in breeding blue titsParus caeruleusdiffer between island and mainland populations and between habitats
Little is known about whether adaptations to an insular life also involve adaptations in basal corticosterone levels or in the adrenocortical stress response, thus being part of a genetically based island syndrome. However, differences in corticosterone between island and mainland may also be a direct phenotypic response to differences in environmental conditions or may depend on individual characteristics of the animal such as body condition or parental investment. In this paper, we investigated whether insular (Island of Corsica) and mainland (nearby Southern France) blue tits Parus caeruleus populations differed in baseline and handling-stress induced corticosterone levels during the breeding season as a response to biological changes of insular biota. We also examined whether corticosterone levels of both mainland and insular blue tits differed between birds living in two different habitats (summergreen and evergreen oak woods) that differ in food availability and whether individual characteristics affected corticosterone levels. We found (a) differences in baseline corticosterone plasma levels between Corsica and the mainland, independent of regional differences in fat scores, (b) a regional difference in the relationship between corticosterone levels and brood size, (c) a difference in the rapidity of onset of the stress response to handling between habitats, independent of region, and (d) a negative relationship between body fat stores and baseline corticosterone levels independent of region. Reduced baseline corticosterone levels on Corsica may be a component of the insular syndrome, allowing birds to be less aggressive and to enhance parental investment despite higher breeding densities. We suggest that baseline corticosterone levels are only elevated if food availability affects directly the parents. However, when conditions deteriorate unexpectedly (as mimicked by handling stress), food allocation between parents and offspring needs to be re-adjusted in favor of the parents, possibly by increased circulating corticosterone levels. The switch to self-maintenance seems to be modified by the amount of body energy stores.