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.