The stress of being alone: Removal from the colony, but not social subordination, increases fecal cortisol metabolite levels in eusocial naked mole-rats

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Phoebe D Edwards, Skyler J Mooney, Curtis O Bosson, Ilapreet Toor, Rupert Palme, Melissa M Holmes, Rudy Boonstra
Hormones and Behavior
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In many social species, hierarchical status within the group is associated with differences in basal adrenocortical activity. We examined this relationship in naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber), eusocial rodents with arguably the most extreme social hierarchies of all mammals. This species lives in colonies where breeding is restricted to one socially dominant ‘queen’ and her male consorts, and all other individuals are reproductively suppressed ‘subordinates’. The relationship between cortisol and social status in naked mole-rats has not fully been elucidated, as prior results on this topic have been contradictory. We used non-invasive feces sampling to measure baseline cortisol levels in eight laboratory colonies of naked mole-rats, to either replicate or reject rank differences. First, we successfully validated an assay to measure fecal cortisol metabolites (FCMs). Removal from the colony for the validation experiment, either alone or with an opposite sex conspecific, induced prolonged elevation of FCM levels on a scale of days to weeks. This increase in cortisol did not prevent the removed animals from sexually maturing. In colony-housed animals, we found no relationship between rank in the social hierarchy and FCM levels. Further, queens, breeding males, and reproductively suppressed subordinates all had equivalent FCM levels. We conclude that this species shows little evidence of the ‘stress of dominance’ or ‘stress of subordination’ and that reproductive suppression in naked mole-rats is not driven by elevated cortisol levels.


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