Epigenetic transfer of behaviour and stress susceptibility in the laying hen: influence of rearing and housing of different strains of parent stock on offspring phenotype

Principal Investigator

Tina Widowski, University of Guelph

Year the work was done


Overall objective

  • Investigate the transfer of behavioural traits and stress susceptibility from laying hens to their offspring, determine whether egg traits and offspring behaviour differ with age of breeder flock, and whether some genotypes are more sensitive to these effects than others.


  • Rearing environment affected egg quality, egg composition, and growth and behaviour of the progeny.
  • Aviary reared hens laid heavier eggs with better albumen quality and were less fearful. Their chicks were heavier and more vocal during social isolation.
  • Maternal age also affected egg composition, egg yolk testosterone, egg quality, and growth and behaviour of chicks. The effects of maternal age were also investigated in three commercial flocks at three ages with data supporting previous observations on behaviour but not growth.
  • The natural stressor produced fewer effects than the pharmacological stressor. There was an effect of age and the embryos of one brown egg strain was particularly susceptible to the effects of the in ovo pharmacological stressor.
  • Assays for the genomic and epigenetic basis for the behavioural effects were originally planned but were ultimately not conducted during this research.


  • This research provides information on any effects of parental environment on the welfare of their offspring.
  • Housing for layers used by the Canadian poultry industry is in a process of flux and information is needed on the birds’ reaction to this.

This research applies to


This research was supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian Poultry Research Council, LH Gray & Sons, Poultry Industry Council, Egg Farmers of Canada and Lohman Tierzucht Canada.