Noguera, J.C. and Velando, A., 2020. Gull chicks grow faster but lose telomeres when prenatal cues mismatch the real presence of sibling competitors. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 287(1927), p.20200242.
During embryonic life, individuals should adjust their phenotype to the conditions that they will encounter after birth, including the social environment, if they have access to (social) cues that allow them to forecast future conditions. In birds, evidence indicates that embryos are sensitive to cues from clutch mates, but whether embryos adjust their development to cope with the expected level of sibling competition has not hitherto been investigated. To tackle this question, we performed a ‘match versus mismatch’ experimental design where we manipulated the presence of clutch mates (i.e. clutch size manipulation) and the real (postnatal) level of sibling competition (i.e. brood size manipulation) in the yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis). We provide evidence that the prenatal cues of sibling presence induced developmental changes (such as epigenetic profiles) that had programming effects on chick begging behaviour and growth trajectories after hatching. While receiving mismatching information favoured chick begging and growth, this came at the cost of reduced antioxidant defences and a premature loss of telomeres. Our findings highlight the role of the prenatal social environment in developmental plasticity and suggest that telomere attrition may be an important physiological cost of phenotype–environment mismatch.