Assessing chronic stress in wild mammals using claw-derived cortisol: a validation using European badgers (Meles meles).
Fokidis HB., Brock T., Newman C., Macdonald DW., Buesching CD.
Measuring stress experienced by wild mammals is increasingly important in the context of human-induced rapid environmental change and initiatives to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts. Glucocorticoids (GC), such as cortisol, mediate responses by promoting physiological adjustments during environmental perturbations. Measuring cortisol is a popular technique; however, this often reveals only recent short-term stress such as that incurred by restraining the animal to sample blood, corrupting the veracity of this approach. Here we present a protocol using claw cortisol, compared with hair cortisol, as a long-term stress bio-indicator, which circumvents this constraint, where claw tissue archives the individual's GC concentration over preceding weeks. We then correlate our findings against detailed knowledge of European badger life history stressors. Based on a solid-phase extraction method, we assessed how claw cortisol concentrations related to season and badger sex, age and body-condition using a combination of generalized linear mixed models (GLMM) (n = 668 samples from 273 unique individuals) followed by finer scale mixed models for repeated measures (MMRM) (n = 152 re-captured individuals). Claw and hair cortisol assays achieved high accuracy, precision and repeatability, with similar sensitivity. The top GLMM model for claw cortisol included age, sex, season and the sex*season interaction. Overall, claw cortisol levels were significantly higher among males than females, but strongly influenced by season, where females had higher levels than males in autumn. The top fine scale MMRM model included sex, age and body condition, with claw cortisol significantly higher in males, older and thinner individuals. Hair cortisol was more variable than claw; nevertheless, there was a positive correlation after removing 34 outliers. We discuss strong support for these stress-related claw cortisol patterns from previous studies of badger biology. Given the potential of this technique, we conclude that it has broad application in conservation biology.