Consequences of environmental stress exposure for behaviour and physiology of a cavity-nesting seabird

Watson, Hannah (2014) Consequences of environmental stress exposure for behaviour and physiology of a cavity-nesting seabird. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Given the increasing rate of environmental change that free-living animals are exposed to, there is a growing need to understand the causes and consequences of environmentally-induced phenotypic change and to what extent this phenotypic plasticity is adaptive. As well as being of fundamental biological significance, this knowledge is necessary for the development of effective conservation policies. This thesis examines variation in behavioural, morphological and physiological responses to repeated exposure to environmental stressors. In particular, I focus on early-life effects and discuss the potential consequences of developmental plasticity for later-life performance.

Although negative effects of human disturbance on wild animals have been widely reported, few studies have considered the potential for effects on animals occupying burrows or cavities. Procellariiform seabirds are among the most globally-threatened avian taxa and include many species that nest underground. Human disturbance is one of the main threats they face, yet breeding colonies attract increasing numbers of tourists. The European storm petrel Hydrobates pelagicus is a small seabird, belonging to the Procellariiformes, that nests in cavities and is strictly nocturnally active at the breeding colony. The UK’s largest storm petrel colony at Mousa, Shetland, offers a novel system for investigating the potential impacts of human recreational disturbance on a cavity-dwelling animal and the capacity for environmentally-induced developmental plasticity within the remarkably slow development strategy displayed by nestlings. I show that, despite remaining out of sight, human disturbance above ground can have profound effects on cavity-dwelling animals. Nestling survival was significantly lower in areas exposed to high levels of human recreational activity, compared with those reared in areas subject to very low levels of visitor activity (Chapter 1). Furthermore, disturbed nestlings that survived to fledging displayed depressed growth rates (Chapter 2). Plasticity in developmental pathways, however, enabled nestlings to mitigate for poor growth conditions by prioritising energy allocation to structural components and extending the growth period. While such growth plasticity can be adaptive and avoid short-term costs, there may also be long-term costs associated with this strategy.

Repeated exposure to stressors can give rise to chronic stress and measures of baseline glucocorticoids are widely considered to be useful for detecting stress in natural populations. Nestlings displayed no evidence for chronic stress, as measured by baseline corticosterone (the main glucocorticoid in birds), in response to repeated exposure to human recreational disturbance (Chapter 2) or investigator handling (Chapter 3). Furthermore, baseline corticosterone did not reflect the differences observed in growth trajectories between the two disturbance categories. Although it is unknown whether the induced changes in growth trajectories of high-disturbance nestlings carry costs, the lack of any effects on corticosterone levels suggests that glucocorticoids are not always an informative measure of individual state. Additional behavioural and physiological data are required to develop an integrated understanding of phenotypic responses to environmental cues. Besides immediate effects on growth and survival, it is well known that conditions experienced during early life can have profound influences on later-life performance. Telomere dynamics potentially provide a mechanistic link between the early environment and fitness outcomes. I show that environmental conditions during growth strongly influence early-life telomere dynamics of entire cohorts, and early-life telomere length is a good predictor of imminent mortality (Chapter 4). Natural variation in the natal environment can lead to marked differences in life-history traits between cohorts and telomere dynamics may be one of the mechanisms underlying cohort effects observed in nature.

Unfavourable natal conditions were also associated with the occurrence of hypothermic responses in nestlings (Chapter 5). Such thermoregulatory responses may be adaptive, by facilitating survival during periods of food shortage or cold, but nonetheless could carry costs for growth and long-term fitness. An enhanced knowledge of the causes and consequences of facultative hypothermic responses can advance our understanding of the effects of environmental change. Understanding and predicting how populations will respond to environmental change, however, requires accurate estimation of population size. The ecology of Procellariiformes presents a major challenge to achieving this. Using spatially-explicit capture-recapture data from three closely-related species of storm petrel, it was shown that capture probability varies across spatial and temporal scales (Chapter 6). This quantified variation was used to inform optimal sampling strategies. The results demonstrate that spatially-explicit capture-recapture models can be effectively used to monitor vulnerable burrowing seabird populations, but require a species-specific approach.

This thesis addresses key questions concerning the capacity for adaptation and response to environmental stress exposure and the mechanisms underlying individual variation in responses. I demonstrate that multidisciplinary studies of behaviour, morphology and physiology are required to develop an integrated understanding of responses to environmental stressors.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: environmental stress, early-life stress, telomere dynamics, recreational disturbance, human disturbance, corticosterone, plasticity, conservation physiology, life-history evolution
Subjects: Q Science > QH Natural history > QH301 Biology
Q Science > QL Zoology
Q Science > QP Physiology
Colleges/Schools: College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine
Supervisor's Name: Monaghan, Prof. Pat and Bolton, Dr. Mark
Date of Award: 2014
Depositing User: Dr Hannah Watson
Unique ID: glathesis:2014-5549
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 14 Oct 2014 15:14
Last Modified: 14 Oct 2014 15:16

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