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Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2004 Jun;137(2):148-65.

Noninvasive monitoring of adrenocortical activity in carnivores by fecal glucocorticoid analyses.

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  • 1Conservation and Research Center, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution, Front Royal, VA, USA.


Measurement of glucocorticoid metabolites in feces has become an accepted method for the noninvasive evaluation of adrenocortical activity. The objective of this study was to determine if a simple cortisol enzyme immunoassay (EIA) was suitable for monitoring adrenocortical activity in a variety of carnivore species. Performance of the cortisol EIA was gauged by comparison to a corticosterone radioimmunoassay (RIA) that has been used for measuring glucocorticoid metabolites in feces of numerous species. Tests for parallelism and extraction efficiency were used to compare the cortisol EIA and corticosterone RIA across eight species of carnivores (Himalayan black bear, sloth bear, domestic cat, cheetah, clouded leopard, black-footed ferret, slender-tailed meerkat, and red wolf). The biological relevance of immunoreactive glucocorticoid metabolites in feces was established for at least one species of each Carnivora family studied with an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) challenge. High performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) analysis of fecal extracts for each species revealed (1) the presence of multiple immunoreactive glucocorticoid metabolites in feces, but (2) the two immunoassays measured different metabolites, and (3) there were differences across species in the number and polarities of metabolites identified between assay systems. ACTH challenge studies revealed increases in fecal metabolite concentrations measured by the cortisol EIA and corticosterone RIA of approximately 228-1145% and approximately 231-4150% above pre-treatment baseline, respectively, within 1-2 days of injection. Concentrations of fecal glucocorticoid metabolites measured by the cortisol EIA and corticosterone RIA during longitudinal evaluation (i.e., >50 days) of several species were significantly correlated (P<0.0025, correlation coefficient range 0.383-0.975). Adrenocortical responses to physical and psychological stressors during longitudinal evaluations varied with the type of stimulus, between episodes of the same stimulus, and among species. Significant elevations of glucocorticoid metabolites were observed following some potentially stressful situations [anesthesia (2 of 3 subjects), restraint and saline injection (2 of 2 subjects), restraint and blood sampling (2 of 6 episodes), medical treatment (1 of 1 subject)], but not in all cases [e.g., gonadotropin injection (n=4), physical restraint only (n=1), mate introduction/breeding (n=1), social tension (n=1), construction (n=2) or relocation (n=1)]. Results reinforced the importance of an adequate baseline period of fecal sampling and frequent collections to assess adrenocortical status. The corticosterone RIA detected greater adrenocortical responses to exogenous ACTH and stressful exogenous stimuli in the Himalayan black bear, domestic cat (female), cheetah, clouded leopard, slender-tailed meerkat, and red wolf, whereas the cortisol EIA proved superior to resolving adrenocortical responses in the black-footed ferret and domestic cat (male). Overall results suggest the cortisol EIA tested in this study offers a practical method for laboratories restricted in the usage of radioisotopes (e.g., zoological institutions and field facilities) to integrate noninvasive monitoring of adrenocortical activity into studies of carnivore behavior and physiology.

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