Moulting is a crucial, yet often overlooked life-history stage in many animals, when they renew their integumental structures. This life-history stage is an energetically demanding somatic growth event that has particular importance in birds because feathers play a crucial role in flight, insulation and communication. Somatic growth processes are regulated by the evolutionarily conserved peptide hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). However, the role of IGF-1 in feather growth remains unknown. In this study, we captured 41 juvenile free-living bearded reedlings (Panurus biarmicus) that had started their first complete moult and brought them into captivity. Then, we manipulated their circulating IGF-1 levels using poly-(lactic-co-glycolid acid) microparticles (microspheres) that provide a sustained release of IGF-1. The treatment increased IGF-1 levels but did not affect the feather growth rate. However, 2 weeks after the treatment, birds in the increased IGF-1 group were moulting more feathers simultaneously than the controls and were at a more advanced stage of moult. Birds with experimentally increased IGF-1 levels had better quality feathers (measured by a lower number of fault bars) than the controls. These results suggest that an increase in IGF-1 does not speed up feather growth, but may alter moult intensity by initiating the renewal of several feathers simultaneously. This may shorten the overall moulting time but may imply costs in terms of IGF-1-induced oxidative stress.

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