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Abstract

Between-individual variation in behavior can emerge through complex interactions between state-related mechanisms, which include internal physiological constraints or feedback derived from the external environment. State-related conditions can be especially influential during early life, when parental effort and exposure to social stress may canalize consistent differences in offspring hormonal profiles and foster specific behavioral strategies. Here, we unravel how relevant state variables, including sex, somatic condition, local population density, and maternal traits, contribute to within-cohort differences in stress, sex, and thyroid hormone axes in dependent Galapagos sea lions with the primary goal of understanding downstream effects on boldness, docility, habitat use, and activity. Pups within denser natal sites had higher levels of cortisol and thyroid T4, a prohormone and proxy for metabolic reserves, likely as an adaptive physiological response after exposure to increased numbers of conspecific interactions. Furthermore, considering maternal effects, mothers in better body condition produced pups with higher testosterone yet downregulated basal cortisol and thyroid T4. This hormonal profile was correlated with increased boldness toward novel objects and attenuated stress responsiveness during capture. Intriguingly, pups with increased thyroid T3, the biologically active form, maintained faster somatic growth and were observed to have increased activity and extensively explored surrounding habitats. Collectively, these findings provide comprehensive evidence for several links to hormone-mediated behavioral strategies, highlighted by variation in socio-environmental and maternally derived input during a foundational life stage.

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