ABSTRACT

As a response to environmental cues, maternal glucocorticoids (GCs) may trigger adaptive developmental plasticity in the physiology and behavior of offspring. In North American red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), mothers exhibit increased GCs when conspecific density is elevated, and selection favors more aggressive and perhaps more active mothers under these conditions. We tested the hypothesis that elevated maternal GCs cause shifts in offspring behavior that may prepare them for high-density conditions. We experimentally elevated maternal GCs during gestation or early lactation. We measured two behavioral traits (activity and aggression) in weaned offspring using standardized behavioral assays. Because maternal GCs may influence offspring hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis dynamics, which may in turn affect behavior, we also measured the impact of our treatments on offspring HPA axis dynamics (adrenal reactivity and negative feedback), and the association between offspring HPA axis dynamics and behavior. Increased maternal GCs during lactation, but not gestation, slightly elevated activity levels in offspring. Offspring aggression and adrenal reactivity did not differ between treatment groups. Male, but not female, offspring from mothers treated with GCs during pregnancy exhibited stronger negative feedback compared with those from control mothers, but there were no differences in negative feedback between lactation treatment groups. Offspring with higher adrenal reactivity from mothers treated during pregnancy (both controls and GC-treated) exhibited lower aggression and activity. These results suggest that maternal GCs during gestation or early lactation alone may not be a sufficient cue to produce substantial changes in behavioral and physiological stress responses in offspring in natural populations.

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