Mitochondria as the powerhouses of sexual selection: testing mechanistic links between development, cellular respiration, and bird song

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Ondi L. Crino, Steph Falk, Andrew Katsis, Fanny Kraft, Kate Buchanan


Although the influence of developmental conditions on the expression of sexually selected traits is established, the physiological mechanisms that modulate such effects remain a matter of intense debate. Here, we test the role of the developmental environment in shaping adult mitochondrial function and link mitochondrial function to expression of a sexually selected trait in males (bird song). We exposed male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) to corticosterone (CORT) treatment during development. After males reached adulthood, we quantified mitochondrial function from whole red blood cells and measured baseline CORT and testosterone levels, body condition/composition, and song structure. CORT-treated males had less efficient mitochondrial function (FCRL/R), lower mitochondrial ‘working pace’ (FCRR/ETS), and higher baseline levels of CORT as adults compared to control males. Using structural equation modelling, we found that the effects of CORT treatment during development on adult mitochondrial function were indirect and modulated by baseline CORT levels, which are programmed by CORT treatment during development. Developmental treatment had an indirect effect on song peak frequency. Males treated with CORT during development sang songs with higher peak frequency than control males, but this effect was modulated through increased CORT levels and decreased mitochondrial efficiency (FCRL/R). CORT-treated males had smaller tarsi compared to control males; however, there were no associations between body size and measures of song frequency. Here, we provide the first evidence supporting links between the developmental environment, mitochondrial function, and the expression of a sexually selected display (bird song).



Biology, Integrative Biology, Life Sciences


cellular respiration, corticosterone, glucocorticoid, Oroboros, passerine, PiecewiseSEM, Stress, structural equation modelling, zebra finch


Published: 2021-12-04 03:41


CC-By Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

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Data and Code Availability Statement:
Data available upon request

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