Stress and Parental Care in a Wild Teleost Fish: Insights from Exogenous Supraphysiological Cortisol Implants
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Male largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) provide sole parental care over a 4-6-wk period to a single brood, fanning the eggs to keep them oxygenated and free of silt and defending the brood until the offspring develop antipredator tactics. During this period, fish are highly active and have few opportunities for feeding, so this activity is energetically costly. To understand some of the consequences of stress during this challenging period, we injected fish with cortisol suspended in coconut oil to experimentally raise circulating cortisol in parental males for the first week of the parental care period. We compared parental care behavior between cortisol-treated, sham-treated (injected only with coconut oil), and control parental males. We further compared physiological parameters associated with metabolism and reproductive function between cortisol-treated and control males. The cortisol injections resulted in supraphysiological levels of circulating plasma cortisol, giving us insight into potential maximal effects of stress during parental care. At these supraphysiological levels, the cortisol-treated fish displayed higher concentrations of circulating glucose and cholesterol and lower concentrations of circulating triglycerides when compared with control fish, with no change in plasma concentrations of total protein. Plasma concentrations of androgen were similarly unaffected by cortisol treatment. In the short term (initial 1-2 wk), parental care of eggs and egg-sac fry was maintained by all groups, with no differences observed in behavior (e.g., tending, vigilance, defense) among the groups. However, the cortisol-treated fish abandoned their offspring at a higher rate than in the control or sham groups. The fish treated with cortisol also tended to develop external Saprolegnian infections, indicative of compromised immune function. These data demonstrate that exogenous cortisol elevation during parental care results in changes in energy use and a decrease in immune function. Interestingly, the data also suggest resistance to stress during parental care in largemouth bass, with no changes in parental care behavior before abandonment.
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