Investigating the influence of food on reproductive physiology and gonad growth: urbanization as a natural experiment
For animals that experience annual cycles of gonad development, the seasonal timing (phenology) of gonad growth is a major adaptation to local environmental conditions. To optimally time seasonal gonad growth, animals use environmental cues that forecast future conditions. The availability of food is one such environmental cue. Although the importance of food availability has been appreciated for decades, the physiological mechanisms underlying the modulation of seasonal gonad growth by this environmental factor remain poorly understood.
Urbanization is characterized by profound environmental changes, and urban animals must adjust to an environment vastly different from that of their non-urban conspecifics. Evidence suggests that birds adjust to urban areas by advancing the timing of seasonal breeding and gonad development, compared to their non-urban conspecifics. A leading hypothesis to account for this phenomenon is that food availability is elevated in urban areas, which improves the energetic status of urban birds and enables them to initiate gonad development earlier than their non-urban conspecifics. However, this hypothesis remains largely untested.
My dissertation dovetailed comparative studies and experimental approaches conducted in field and captive settings to examine the physiological mechanisms by which food availability modulates gonad growth and to investigate whether elevated food availability in urban areas advances the phenology of gonad growth in urban birds. My captive study demonstrated that energetic status modulates reproductive hormone secretion, but not gonad growth. By contrast, free-ranging urban and non-urban birds did not differ in energetic status or plasma levels of reproductive hormones either in years in which urban birds had advanced phenology of gonad growth or in a year that had no habitat-related disparity in seasonal gonad growth. Therefore, my dissertation provides no support for the hypothesis that urban birds begin seasonal gonad growth because they are in better energetic status and increase the secretion of reproductive hormones earlier than non-urban birds. My studies do suggest, however, that the phenology of key food items and the endocrine responsiveness of the reproductive system may contribute to habitat-related disparities in the phenology of gonad growth.