|dc.description.abstract||Measuring hormonal changes is vital for understanding how the social and physical environment influences behaviour, reproduction and survival. Various methods of hormone measurement exist, potentially explaining variation in results across studies; methods should be cross validated to ensure they correlate. I directly compare faecal and plasma hormone measurements (Chapter 2), and use the most suitable endocrine measure to test the Darling hypothesis (Chapter 3) - that breeding is hastened and synchronized in larger colonies due to increased social stimulation (mediated by the endocrine system).
Blood and faecal samples were simultaneously collected from individual Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) for comparison, and assayed for testosterone and corticosterone (or their metabolites). Sex differences and variability within each measure, and correlation of values across measures were compared. For both hormones, plasma samples showed greater variation than faecal samples. Males had higher corticosterone levels than females, but the difference was only significant in faecal samples. Plasma testosterone, but not faecal testosterone, was significantly higher in males than females. Correlation between sample types was poor overall, and weaker in females than in males; perhaps because measures from plasma represent hormones that are both free and bound to globulins, whereas measures from faeces represent only the free portion. Faecal samples also represent a cumulative measure of hormones over time, as opposed to a plasma 'snapshot' concentration. Faecal sampling appears more suitable for assessing baseline hormone levels.
In the second study I examined, over two seasons, whether the timing of breeding varied with colony size; larger colonies present occupants with higher levels of social stimulation and are predicted to show earlier, more synchronous breeding. Baseline faecal hormone levels throughout the breeding season, and survival, were measured to investigate possible proximate and ultimate mechanisms for the results. The influence of environmental variability was examined, by relating the timing of breeding, survival, and endocrine changes to sea ice conditions. Colony size did not influence the timing or synchrony of breeding, survival, or hormone levels within years; perhaps because colonies in an Adelie rookery are not independent from the 'social environment' of adjacent colonies. Across years, synchrony in the smaller rookery was higher than in the larger rookery. The scale of these comparisons may exceed the applicability of the Darling hypothesis. Therefore, no support was found for the Darling hypothesis, at the colony or rookery level, in this species. Higher corticosterone metabolite and lower sex hormone levels in the first season correlated to later breeding and lower survival compared to the second season. This is likely due to the persistence of extensive sea ice conditions late into the first season.
Researchers should take care in selecting the most appropriate method of hormone measurement for their question. Future studies testing the Darling hypothesis must carefully select their definition of a colony (i.e. a truly isolated social unit) and the scale at which the hypothesis is tested. Combining endocrine measurements with behavioural, survival, and environmental information allows for a more comprehensive interpretation of animal ecology.||en_NZ