“Macroevolutionary patterning in glucocorticoids suggests different selective pressures shape baseline and stress-induced levels”

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Maren N. Vitousek, Michele A. Johnson, Cynthia J. Downs, Eliot T. Miller, Lynn B. Martin, Clinton D. Francis, Jeremy W. Donald, Matthew J. Fuxjager, Wolfgang Goymann, Michaela Hau, Jerry F. Husak, Bonnie K. Kircher, Rosemary Knapp, Laura A. Schoenle, and Tony D. Williams (June 2019)

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New analysis suggests consistency in how some selective pressures shape glucocorticoid hormones across tetrapods

A phylogeny of the vertebrate species for which hormone data are publicly available in HormoneBase (www.HormoneBase.org).
(Artwork by Bonnie K. Kircher)


Glucocorticoid (GC) hormones are important phenotypic mediators across vertebrates, but their circulating concentrations can vary markedly. Here we investigate macroevolutionary patterning in GC levels across tetrapods by testing seven specific hypotheses about GC variation, and evaluating whether the supported hypotheses reveal consistent patterns in GC evolution. If selection generally favors the “supportive” role of GCs in responding effectively to challenges, then baseline and/or stress-induced GCs may be higher in challenging contexts. Alternatively, if selection generally favors “protection” from GC-induced costs, GCs may be lower in environments where challenges are more common or severe. The predictors of baseline GCs were all consistent with supportive effects: levels were higher in smaller organisms, and in those inhabiting more energetically demanding environments. During breeding, baseline GCs were also higher in populations and species with fewer lifetime opportunities to reproduce. The predictors of stress-induced GCs were instead more consistent with the protection hypothesis: during breeding, levels were lower in organisms with fewer lifetime reproductive opportunities. Overall, these patterns indicate a surprising degree of consistency in how some selective pressures shape GCs across broad taxonomic scales; at the same time, in challenging environments selection appears to operate on baseline and stress-induced GCs in distinct ways.