Stressed seabirds not concerned with offspring, study says

By Allen Cone  |  March 13, 2017 at 4:05 PM
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March 13 (UPI) -- Researchers have found that little auk seabirds care only about themselves, rather than their offspring, in stressful situations.

Researchers from Vetmeduni Vienna, Austria, and the University of Gdansk, Poland, studied parent-offspring interactions in the little auk in the Ariekammen slopes in Hornsund of the Arctic Sea in 2012 and 2013, finding that when their own chance of survival is reduced because of a food shortage or weather conditions, the seabirds will focus on looking for their own food rather than caring for their only chick.

"But that doesn't make them bad parents," Rupert Palme, a researcher in the Department of Physiology, Pathophysiology and Experimental Endocrinology at Vetmeduni Vienna, said in a press release. "This is a normal occurrence in nature that cannot be compared to our behavior and sense of responsibility."

Little auk live in a harsh environment, and often there food shortages and poor weather conditions, and the researchers were especially interested in this interaction because the birds usually produce only one chick.

"Contrary to studies under natural conditions, experimental manipulations allow us to assess the birds' reactions in a short time period," according to the study, which is published in the Journal of Ornithology. "We used the stress hormone corticosterone as an independent experimental factor to simulate the stress reaction, to examine changes in the behavior of little auk chicks and parent birds."

In one test, researchers first implanted offspring with hormone-releasing pellets.

"The intensified begging behavior was a cry for help directed at the parent birds that was clearly successful," said Dorota Kidawa, a researcher at the University of Gdansk in Poland. "Our study shows that adult little auks usually go to their limit, to their caring maximum, in order to give their offspring enough to eat."

In the second test, a hormone pellet was also inserted into one of the parent birds. They fed their young less frequently and the offspring worsened considerably compared with the control group.

"The begging behavior elicited a care response among the adult little auks. But this response, and its extent, depend on how fit the parent birds feel," Palme said.

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