Gut microbiome and telomere length in gull hatchlings

Velando, A., Noguera, J.C., Aira, M. and Domínguez, J., 2021. Gut microbiome and telomere length in gull hatchlings. Biology Letters, 17(10), p.20210398.

In many animals, recent evidence indicates that the gut microbiome may be acquired during early development, with possible consequences on newborns’ health. Thus, it has been hypothesized that a healthy microbiome protects telomeres and genomic integrity against cellular stress. However, the link between the early acquired microbiome and telomere dynamics has not hitherto been investigated. In birds, this link may also be potentially modulated by the transfer of maternal glucocorticoids, since these substances dysregulate microbiome composition during postnatal development. Here, we examined the effect of the interplay between the microbiome and stress hormones on the telomere length of yellow-legged gull hatchlings by using a field experiment in which we manipulated the corticosterone content in eggs. We found that the hatchling telomere length was related to microbiome composition, but this relationship was not affected by the corticosterone treatment. Hatchlings with a microbiome dominated by potential commensal bacteria (i.e. Catellicoccus and Cetobacterium) had larger telomeres, suggesting that an early establishment of the species-specific microbiome during development may have important consequences on offspring health and survival.


Light received by embryos promotes postnatal junior phenotypes in a seabird

Ruiz-Raya, F., Noguera, J.C. and Velando, A., 2022. Light received by embryos promotes postnatal junior phenotypes in a seabird. Behavioral Ecology, 33(6), pp.1047-1057.

Light is a salient and variable ecological factor that can impact developmental trajectories of vertebrate embryos, yet whether prenatal light environment can act as an anticipatory cue preparing organisms to cope with postnatal conditions is still unclear. In asynchronous birds, last-laid eggs are particularly exposed to sunlight as parental incubation behavior becomes intermittent after the hatching of senior chicks. Here, we explore whether natural variations in prenatal light exposure shape the distinctive phenotype showed by last-hatched chicks of a semi-precocial seabird, the yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis), potentially preparing them to cope with the postnatal competitive context. To do this, we manipulated the amount of light received by last-laid eggs (within a natural range) during last stages of embryonic development. Prenatal exposure to light cues promoted the development of the resilient “junior phenotype” exhibited by last-hatched gull chicks, characterized by accelerated hatching, increased begging behavior and a slower growth rate. These developmental and behavioral adjustments were accompanied by down-regulation of genes involved in metabolism and development regulation (SOD2 and TRalpha), as well as changes in the HPA-axis functioning (lower baseline corticosterone and robust adrenocortical response). Junior chicks exposed to light cues during the embryonic development showed longer telomeres during the early postnatal period, suggesting that light-induced adjustments could allow them to buffer the competitive disadvantages associated with hatching asynchrony. Our study provides evidence that postnatal junior phenotypes are, at least in part, prenatally shaped by light cues that act during a critical temporal window of developmental sensitivity.


Maternal testosterone affects offspring telomerase activity in a long-lived seabird

Noguera, J.C. and Velando, A., 2022. Maternal testosterone affects offspring telomerase activity in a long‐lived seabird. Ecology and Evolution, 12(9), p.e9281.

Androgens are a group of steroid hormones that have long been proposed as a mechanism underpinning intergenerational plasticity. In birds, maternally allocated egg testosterone, one of the main androgens in vertebrates, affects a wide variety of offspring phenotypic traits but the mechanisms underlying this form of intergenerational plasticity are not yet well understood. Recent in vitro and animal model studies have shown that telomerase expression and activity are important targets of androgen signaling. The telomerase enzyme is known for its repair function on telomeres, the DNA–protein complexes at the ends of chromosomes that are involved in genomic integrity and cell aging. However, the role of maternal testosterone in influencing offspring telomerase levels in natural populations and its consequences on telomere length and potentially on offspring development is still unknown. Here, by experimentally modifying the level of egg testosterone in a natural population of yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis), we show that chicks hatched from testosterone-treated eggs had higher average levels of telomerase and faster growth than controls during the first week of life. While testosterone-treated chicks also tended to have longer telomeres than controls at hatching this difference disappeared by day 6 of age. Overall, our results suggest that maternal testosterone may have a potential adaptive value by promoting offspring growth and presumably telomerase levels, as this enzyme plays other important physiological functions (e.g., stress resistance, cell signaling, or tissue genesis) besides telomere lengthening. Nonetheless, our knowledge of the potential adaptive function of telomerase in natural populations is scarce and so the potential pathways linking maternal hormones, offspring telomerase, and fitness should be further investigated.


Egg corticosterone can stimulate telomerase activity and promote longer telomeres during embryo development

Noguera, J.C., da Silva, A. and Velando, A., Egg corticosterone can stimulate telomerase activity and promote longer telomeres during embryo development. Molecular Ecology.

It is often assumed that the transfer of maternal glucocorticoids (GCs; e.g. corticosterone or cortisol) to offspring is an inevitable cost associated with adverse or stressful conditions experienced by mothers. However, recent evidence indicates that maternal GCs may adaptively program particular physiological and molecular pathways during development to enhance offspring fitness. In this context, an important mechanism through which maternal GCs may lastingly affect offspring phenotypic quality and survival is via effects on embryo telomerase activity and so on offspring postnatal telomere length. Here, using a field experimental design for which we manipulated the corticosterone content in yellow‐legged gull (Larus michahellis) eggs, we show that embryos from corticosterone‐injected eggs not only had a higher telomerase activity but also longer telomeres just after hatching. A complementary analysis further revealed that gull hatchlings with longer telomeres had a higher survival probability during the period when most of the chick mortality occurs. Given the important role that telomere length and its restoring mechanisms have on ageing trajectories and disease risk, our findings provide a new mechanistic link by which mothers may presumably shape offspring life‐history trajectories and phenotype.

Gull chicks grow faster but lose telomeres when prenatal cues mismatch the real presence of sibling competitors

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.

Maternal programming of offspring antipredator behavior in a seabird

Morales, J., Lucas, A. e Velando, A., 2018. Maternal programming of offspring antipredator behavior in a seabird. Behavioral Ecology, arx197,

Predation risk is an important environmental factor for animal populations, expected to trigger maternal effects to prepare offspring for living in an environment with predators. Yet, evidence of adaptive anticipatory maternal effects in wild animals is still weak. Here, we explored this question in a wild colony of yellow-legged gulls, Larus michahellis. To this aim, prior to laying we exposed mothers to either mink decoys or nonpredator rabbit decoys and explored the antipredator behavior of 118 chicks at the age of 2 days. We found that chicks from second-laid eggs by predator-exposed mothers crouched faster after hearing a playback with adult alarm calls than chicks from second-laid eggs by control mothers. Besides, chicks from third-laid eggs by predator-exposed mothers were lighter than control chicks, but this was not due to differences in egg volume. Our results suggest that predator-exposed mothers modified offspring phenotype via eggs to cope with predators, although only in chicks from second-laid eggs. Maternal transference of corticosterone could underlie chick behavioral plasticity. Results support the role of maternal effects as a form of phenotype programming to forewarn offspring about environmental hazards.

Family-transmitted stress in a wild bird

Noguera, J.C., Kim, S.Y. & Velando, A., 2017. Family-transmitted stress in a wild bird. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, p.201706164. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): 201706164.

Recent data suggest that, in animals living in social groups, stress-induced changes in behavior have the potential to act as a source of information, so that stressed individuals could themselves act as stressful stimuli for other individuals with whom they interact repeatedly. Such form of cross-over of stress may be beneficial if it enhances adaptive responses to ecological stressors in the shared environment. However, whether stress can be transferred among individuals during early life in natural populations remains unknown. Here we tested the effect of living with stressed siblings in a gull species where, as in many vertebrates, family represents the basic social unit during development. By experimentally modifying the level of stress hormones (corticosterone) in brood mates, we demonstrate that the social transfer of stress level triggers similar stress responses (corticosterone secretion) in brood bystanders. Corticosterone-implanted chicks and their siblings were faster in responding to a potential predator attack than control chicks. In gulls, fast and coordinated reactions to predators may increase the chances of survival of the whole brood, suggesting a beneficial fitness value of cross-over of stress. However, our data also indicate that living with stressed brood mates early in life entails some long-term costs. Near independence, fledglings that grew up with stressed siblings showed reduced body size, high levels of oxidative damage in lipids and proteins, and a fragile juvenile plumage. Overall, our results indicate that stress cross-over occurs in animal populations and may have important fitness consequences.

Plumage colour and the expression of stress-related genes in gull chicks

Diaz-Real, J., Kim, S.Y. & Velando, A., 2017. Plumage colour and the expression of stress‐related genes in gull chicks. Journal of Avian Biology. DOI: 10.1111/jav.01460

In many bird populations, individuals show remarkable differences in feather colouration, which are often linked to individual differences in physiological traits, but the mechanisms maintaining this covariation are still unclear. Here, we investigate the variability of the melanic colouration in yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis) chicks. In this species, hatchlings show high variability in the number and colour intensity of black spots in their plumage. In gulls, last-laid eggs receive less antioxidants but higher levels of androgens than first eggs. We first explored whether these remarkable differences within the clutch affect the feather melanisation during embryo development. Melanic colouration was not related to laying order, but nestling males were darker and had a larger spotted area than nestling females. In chicks hatching from first-laid eggs, the spot size and spot lightness were negatively correlated. We also explored the effect of the developmental environment, through a cross-fostering experiment, on the expression of five stress-related genes (SOD2, ALKBH3, HSPA8, NLRC5 and TRIAP1) and their link with melanic colouration. Post-hatching hierarchy did not affect the expression of any of the tested genes, but paler chicks showed reduced expression in some studied genes (SOD2, ALKBH3 and HSPA8) in comparison to darker chicks. Our results suggest that melanic chicks suffer less stress during development.

On the oxidative cost of begging: antioxidants enhance vocalizations in gull chicks

Noguera, J.C., Morales, J., Pérez, C. & Velando, A., 2010. On the oxidative cost of begging: antioxidants enhance vocalizations in gull chicks. Behavioral Ecology, 21(3), pp.479-484.

Offspring solicit food to their parents by begging displays, which are important in the parent–offspring communication. Most theoretical approximations on this behavior have centered on the view of begging as an honest signal of need or as a form of scramble competition for resources. In both signaling models, costly begging is necessary to stabilize the begging strategy at equilibrium. Nevertheless, evidence supporting begging as costly behavior remains scarce. We investigated whether oxidative stress may represent a general form of proximate cost of begging and also whether begging is related to offspring nutritional condition. To test this, we experimentally modified the chicks’ nutritional condition and vitamin E availability and measured the effects on different begging components. The intensity of all begging components increased in chicks that were intake restricted, whereas vitamin E specifically enhance the total number of chatter calls given by chicks, mainly in those with a lower body size. Our results suggest that begging behavior is an antioxidant demanding activity and support the idea that oxidative stress may be a cost of begging. Our findings also suggest that begging behavior may be an honest signal of the nutritional and oxidative status of the chicks.

The evolution of multicomponent begging display in gull chicks: sibling competition and genetic variability

Kim, S.Y., Noguera, J.C., Morales, J. & Velando, A., 2011. The evolution of multicomponent begging display in gull chicks: sibling competition and genetic variability. Animal Behaviour, 82(1), pp.113-118.

The evolution of begging display may be influenced by gene–environment interaction, through the mechanisms that adjust begging behaviour to environmental conditions of offspring, including intensity of sibling competition within broods. We decomposed the complex begging display of yellow-legged gull, Larus michahellis, chicks into two different functional components: begging for food (pecks) and drawing the attention of parents (chatter calls). We examined these begging components in 2-day-old chicks that hatched and grew up in foster nests, by performing a begging test for each chick alone without the hindrance of its foster siblings. Male chicks and those with poorer body condition begged for food at higher rates than females and those with better body condition, respectively. Chicks from larger broods begged for food more frequently, but chicks from male-biased broods begged less frequently. If begging is costly, chicks may adjust their begging efforts to the intensity of sibling competition. Frequency of chatter calls varied with sex, chick order within broods and body condition: females, the third chicks and those with poorer condition produced chatter calls more frequently. Genetic origin had a significant effect on frequency of chatter calls but not on begging for food, while foster nest effect was null in both traits. Therefore, chatter calls (but not pecks) can be subject to evolution under directional selection. Different begging components may have evolved through different evolutionary pathways.