Physiological trade-offs in self-maintenance: Plumage molt and stress physiology in birds

Jamie M. Cornelius, Nicole Perfito, Richard Zann, Creagh W. Breuner, Thomas P. Hahn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Trade-offs between self-maintenance processes can affect life-history evolution. Integument replacement and the stress response both promote self-maintenance and affect survival in vertebrates. Relationships between the two processes have been studied most extensively in birds, where hormonal stress suppression is down regulated during molt in seasonal species, suggesting a resource-based trade-off between the two processes. The only species found to differ are the rock dove and Eurasian tree sparrow, at least one of which performs a very slow molt that may reduce resource demands during feather growth, permitting investment in the stress response. To test for the presence of a molt-stress response trade-off, we measured hormonal stress responsiveness during and outside molt in two additional species with extended molts, red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) and zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). We found that both species maintain hormonal stress responsiveness during molt. Further, a comparative analysis of all available species revealed a strong relationship between molt duration and degree of hormonal suppression. Though our results support trade-off hypotheses, these data can also be explained by alternative hypotheses that have not been formally addressed in the literature. We found a strong relationship between stress suppression and seasonality of breeding and evidence suggesting that the degree of suppression may be either locally adaptable or plastic and responsive to local environmental conditions. We hypothesize that environmental unpredictability favors extended molt duration, which in turn allows for maintenance of the hormonal stress response, and discuss implications of a possible trade-off for the evolution of molt schedules.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2768-2777
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 2011


  • Corticosteroid-binding globulin
  • Corticosterone
  • Environmental predictability
  • Opportunism
  • Protein
  • Red crossbill
  • Zebra finch


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