Is fledging in king penguin chicks related to changes in metabolic or endocrinal status?

Abstract

This study examines the possibility that metabolic or endocrinal factors initiate fledging in the king penguin, a semi-altricial seabird species breeding a single chick on the ground. Chick fledging (departure to sea) occurred 5d after completion of the molt. It was preceded by a 16d fasting period and by a 7-fold increase in locomotor activity. From the measurement of the plasma concentration of metabolites and of glucagon and insulin, pre-fledging king penguin chicks were found to adapt to fasting in a classical way, i.e. by sparing body protein and mobilizing fat stores. At fledging, chicks were in phase II of fasting and their departure to sea was not stimulated by reaching critical energy depletion (phase III), in contrast to that which has been reported in breeding-fasting adults. The plasma level of corticosterone remained unchanged throughout the whole pre-fledging period, providing no support for a role of this stress-hormone in the facilitation of fledging. Thus, king penguin fledglings did not appear to be environmentally or nutritionally stressed. The plasma levels of thyroid hormones were elevated during the pre-fledging molt, in accordance with their key role in molt control in adult penguins. These levels declined by the time of the molt end, the plasma level of T4 thereafter being directly related to the time left before fledging. These results do not support the view that chronically elevated levels of thyroid hormones are required for the energy-demanding transition between being ashore and in cold water, but they suggest that the maintenance of high T4 levels may delay fledging.

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