Physiological stress does not increase with urbanization in European blackbirds: evidence from hormonal, immunological and cellular indicators

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Urbanization changes the landscape structure and ecological processes of natural habitats. While urban areas expose animal communities to novel challenges, they may also provide more stable environments in which environmental fluctuations are buffered. Species´ ecology and physiology may determine their capacity to cope with the city life. However, the physiological mechanisms underlying organismal responses to urbanization, and whether different physiological systems are equally affected by urban environments remain poorly understood. This severely limits our capacity to predict the impact of anthropogenic habitats on wild populations. In this study, we measured indicators of physiological stress at the endocrine, immune and cellular level (feather corticosterone levels, heterophil to lymphocyte ratio, and heat-shock proteins) in urban and non-urban European blackbirds (Turdus merula) across 10 European populations. Among the three variables, we found consistent differences in feather corticosterone, which was higher in non-urban habitats. This effect seems to bedependent on sex, being greater in males. In contrast, we found no significant differences between urban and non-urban habitats in the two other physiological indicators. The discrepancy between these different measurements of physiological stress highlights the importance of including multiple physiological variables to understand the impact of urbanization on species' physiology. Overall, our findings suggest that adult European blackbirds living in urban and non-urban habitats do not differ in terms of physiological stress at an organismal level. Furthermore, we found large differences among populations on the strength and direction of the urbanization effect, which illustrates the relevance of spatial replication when investigating urban-induced physiological responses.