Measuring animal welfare within a reintroduction: an assessment of different indices of stress in water voles Arvicola amphibius.
Gelling M., Johnson PJ., Moorhouse TP., Macdonald DW.
Reintroductions are an increasingly common conservation restoration tool; however, little attention has hitherto been given to different methods for monitoring the stress encountered by reintroduced individuals. We compared ten potential measures of stress within four different categories (neuroendocrine, cell function, body condition and immune system function) as proxies for animal welfare in water voles being reintroduced to the Upper Thames region, Oxfordshire, UK. Captive-bred voles were assessed pre-release, and each month post-release for up to five months. Wild-born voles were captured in the field and assessed from two months post-release. Plasma corticosteroid, hydration and body condition of captive-bred voles differed between their pre-release measures and both their first ("short-term") recapture, and their final recapture ("long-term" release), however only body condition and immunocompetence measured using the Nitroblue Tetrazolium (NBT) test were significantly different post-release between the first and last recaptures. Captive-bred animals had lower fat reserves, higher weight/length ratios and better immunocompetence (NBT) than did wild-born voles. Captive-bred males had higher ectoparasite burdens compared to wild-born males and, as reintroduction site quality decreased, became less hydrated. These observations indicate that some methods can identify changes in the stress response in individuals, highlighting areas of risk in a reintroduction programme. In addition, a single measure may not provide a full picture of the stress experienced; instead, a combination of measures of different physiological systems may give a more complete indication of stress during the reintroduction process. We highlight the need to monitor stress in reintroductions using measures from different physiological systems to inform on possible animal welfare improvements and thus the overall success rate of reintroductions.