Bertin, A., Mocz, F., Calandreau, L. et al. 2019. Human behaviour at the origin of maternal effects on offspring behaviour in laying hens (Gallus gallus domesticus). Physiology & Behavior 201, 175-183.
Regular visual presence of humans is known to reduce chickens' human-generated stress responses. Here we questioned whether, more than mere visual presence, human behaviour affects laying hen behaviour and subsequently their offspring's behaviour. We hypothesized that human behaviour triggers maternal effects via variations in yolk hormone levels. For five consecutive weeks, two groups of hens were exposed to the same durations of human presence (30 min twice a day, five days a week) but the behaviour of the human differed between groups. The first group (H+) was exposed to predictable arrival of the experimenter, slow movements combined with static presence, stroking during handling and human voice. Whereas the second group of hens (H-) was exposed to unpredictable arrival of the experimenter which remained silent, in motion, and did not provide stroking during handling. At the end of the treatment, we evaluated egg quality and offspring behaviour. We found that avoidance of the experimenter by H+ hens but not by H– hens decreased significantly. Fertility rates and concentrations of yolk progesterone and estradiol in H+ hens' eggs were higher than in H– hens' eggs. Fear of humans, neophobia or the capacity to solve a detour task did not differ significantly between H+ and H– chicks. Social discrimination tests showed that H+ chicks but not H– chicks typically preferred a familiar conspecific to a stranger. These results show that, with the same duration in the presence of the birds, humans through their behaviour engender variations in fertility rates, yolk hormone levels and transgenerational effects on social skills. Rarely explored, our data suggest that maternal effects influence filial imprinting. These data have broad implications for laboratory, commercial systems and conservatory programs where the inevitable presence of humans could trigger maternal effects on offspring phenotype.