Maternal effects mediated by egg size and quality may profoundly affect offspring development and performance, and mothers may adjust egg traits according to environmental or social influences. In avian species, context-dependency of maternal effects may result in variation in egg composition, as well as in differential patterns of covariation among selected egg components, according to, for example, position in the laying sequence or offspring sex. We investigated variation in major classes of egg yolk components (carotenoids, vitamins and steroid hormones) in relation to egg size, position in the laying sequence and embryo sex in clutches of the Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis). We also investigated their covariation, to highlight mutual adjustments, maternal constraints or trade-offs in egg allocation.
Laying sequence-specific patterns of allocation emerged: concentration of carotenoids and vitamin E decreased, while concentrations of androgens increased. Vitamin A, estradiol and corticosterone did not show any change. There was no evidence of sex-specific allocation or covariation of yolk components. Concentrations of carotenoids and vitamins were positively correlated. Egg mass decreased along the laying sequence, and this decrease was negatively correlated with the mean concentrations of carotenoids in clutches, suggesting that nutritionally constrained females lay low quality clutches in terms of carotenoid content. Finally, clutches with smaller decline in antioxidants between first- and last-laid eggs had a larger increase in yolk corticosterone, suggesting that a smaller antioxidant depletion along the laying sequence may entail a cost for laying females in terms of increased stress levels.
Since some of the analyzed yolk components (e.g. testosterone and lutein) are known to exert sex-specific phenotypic effects on the progeny in this species, the lack of sex-specific egg allocation by mothers may either result from trade-offs between contrasting effects of different egg components on male and female offspring, or indicate that sex-specific traits are controlled primarily by mechanisms of sexual differentiation, including endogenous hormone production or metabolism of exogenous antioxidants, during embryonic development.||