Comparative endocrinology of cycling and non-cycling Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
J. Brown
General and Comparative Endocrinology
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Up to 14% of Asian and 29% of African elephants in captivity are not cycling normally or exhibit irregular cycles based on progestin profiles. To determine if ovarian acyclicity is related to other disruptions in endocrine activity, serum pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, and ovarian hormones in weekly samples collected for 6–25 months were compared between normal cycling (n ¼ 22 each species) and non-cycling (n ¼ 6 Asian; n ¼ 30 African) elephants. A subset of cycling females (n ¼ 4 Asian, 7 African) also were blood sampled daily during the follicular phase to characterize the peri-ovulatory period. In normal cycling females, two leutinizing hormone (LH) surges were observed 3 weeks apart during a normal follicular phase, with the second inducing ovulation (ovLH). Serum FSH concentrations were highest at the beginning of the non-luteal phase, declining to nadir concentrations within 4 days of the ovLH surge. FSH remained low until after the ovLH surge and then increased during the luteal phase. A species difference was noted in prolactin secretion. In the African elephant, prolactin was increased during the follicular phase, but in Asian elephants concentrations remained stable throughout the cycle. Patterns of thyroid hormones (thyroid-stimulating hormone, TSH; free and total thyroxine, T4; free and total triiodothyronine, T3) and cortisol secretion were not affected by estrous cycle stage or season in cycling elephants. In non-cycling elephants, there were no fluctuating patterns of LH, FSH, or prolactin secretion. Overall mean concentrations of all hormones were similar to those in cycling animals, with the exception of FSH, prolactin, and estradiol. Mean serum FSH concentrations were lower due to females not exhibiting normal cyclic increases, whereas serum estradiol was higher overall in most acyclic females. Prolactin concentrations were significantly increased in 11 of 30 non-cycling females, all of which were African elephants. In sum, while there were no consistent endocrine anomalies associated with ovarian acyclicity, hyperprolactinemia may be one cause of ovarian dysfunction. The finding of elevated estrogens in some acyclic females also deserves further investigation, especially determining how it relates to reproductive tract pathologies.


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