Faecal glucocorticoid metabolites as a measure of adrenocortical activity in polar bears (Ursus maritimus)

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Anna Hein, Rupert Palme, Katrin Baumgartner, Lorenzo von Fersen, Benno Woelfing, Alex D Greenwood, Thea Bechshoft, Ursula Siebert
Conservation Physiology
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Analysis of faecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGMs) is frequently applied to assess adrenocortical activity in animal conservation and welfare studies. Faecal sample collection is non-invasive and feasible under field conditions. FGM levels are also less prone to circadian rhythms, episodic fluctuations and short acute stressors than glucocorticoid (GC) levels obtained from other matrices, for example blood or saliva. To investigate the suitability of FGM measurement in polar bears (Ursus maritimus), a species listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), a cortisol enzyme immunoassay (EIA) was biologically validated by demonstrating a significant increase in FGMs after five zoo-to-zoo transports. In addition to validating the method, the study also documented an average delay of 7 h until the first occurrence of food colorants in the monitored polar bears, which provides essential information for future studies. After validation, the assay was applied to measure FGM concentrations of five polar bears over a 1-year period. Several pre-defined potentially stressful events were recorded in an event log to measure their effect on FGM concentrations. A mixed model analysis revealed significant increases in FGM concentrations after social tension and environmental changes, whereas season and sex had no significant effect. The study demonstrates that the applied cortisol EIA is suitable for measuring FGM levels in polar bears and that using a carefully validated assay for FGM analysis in combination with a detailed sampling protocol can serve as a valuable tool for evaluating mid- to long-term stress in polar bears. FGM levels can be used to monitor stress in captive polar bears in order to optimize housing conditions but also to elucidate stress responses in wild populations for targeted conservation measures.


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