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Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2003 May;131(3):345-52.

Measurement of plasma corticosterone and fecal glucocorticoid metabolites in the chicken (Gallus domesticus), the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), and the goshawk (Accipiter gentilis).

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Institute of Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research, Alfred-Kowalke-Str. 17, D-10315 Berlin, Germany.


A method for the non-invasive measurement of glucocorticoid metabolites in feces of chickens was established and validated. After high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) the presence of at least two fecal immunoreactives was demonstrated, one co-eluting with authentic corticosterone, whereas the second substance migrates close to corticosterone sulphate. We investigated the relationship between corticosterone in blood plasma obtained by a vena brachialis catheter and fecal samples in groups of five chickens after an ACTH and a dexamethasone injection to stimulate and to suppress adrenal activity. A control group received a saline injection. After ACTH plasma cortisol concentrations increased 16-fold after 1.5 h to levels between 19 and 38 ng/ml and dropped to pre-treatment levels (1.1-2.5 ng/ml) 4h after stimulation. Dexamethasone did not result in a distinct suppression of adrenocortical activity and plasma corticosterone dropped only slightly below pre-treatment levels. The concentrations in fecal metabolites corresponded to the changes in the levels of biological active hormone in plasma. Fecal peak excretion (105-295 ng/g) was obtained with a delay of approximately 4 h compared to plasma. The profile obtained after ACTH challenge reflected a broader and dampened pattern of glucocorticoid secretion and provided a more integrated measure of adrenal activity. Dexamethasone treatment did not induce a measurable decrease in fecal metabolites and concentrations fluctuated around a mean of 30.0+/-9.9 ng/g, almost identical to those obtained from the saline treatment group (29.4+/-13.9 ng/g). In a separate experiment the effect of an alternative capture method (remote-controlled injection system) was investigated in cormorants. Plasma corticosterone measurements revealed a significantly diminished stress reaction compared to traditional trapping (1.24+/-0.78 vs. 10.9+/-12.1 ng/ml). Investigations whether goshawk nestlings infected with Trichomas gallinae differ in fecal corticosterone metabolite concentrations compared to healthy subjects revealed no significant changes. However, a significant correlation was found between the glucocorticoid metabolite concentrations and the number of nestlings per nest. The demonstration that adrenal activity can be detected by the assay is a prerequisite that ecologically meaningful levels of imposed stress can be validated. Therefore, non-invasive measurements of fecal metabolites are a promising perspective to monitor stress in birds.

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