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Conserv Physiol. 2014 Jun 27;2(1):cou023. doi: 10.1093/conphys/cou023. eCollection 2014.

Measures of physiological stress: a transparent or opaque window into the status, management and conservation of species?

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Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK; Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.
Département de biologie, chimie et geographie, Université du Québec á Rimouski, Rimouski, QC, Canada G5L 3A1.
Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress, University of Toronto Scarborough, Toronto, ON, Canada M1C 1A4.
Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16801, USA.


Conservation physiology proposes that measures of physiological stress (glucocorticoid levels) can be used to assess the status and future fate of natural populations. Increases in glucocorticoids may reflect a more challenging environment, suggesting that the influence of human activities on free-living animals could be quantified by measuring glucocorticoids. Biomedical studies suggest that chronic increases in glucocorticoids can have detrimental effects on survival and reproduction, which could influence the viability of populations. Here, we discuss the use of measurements of glucocorticoids in conservation physiology. We first provide an overview of the different methods to quantify glucocorticoids and their utility in conservation physiology. We then discuss five questions we think are essential for conservation physiologists to address. We highlight how intrinsic (e.g. sex, reproductive status, age, recent experiences) and ecological factors (e.g. predation, food availability, snowfall) can, by themselves or through their interactions with anthropogenic disturbances, affect the physiological stress response and mask any general patterns about the effects of anthropogenic disturbances on glucocorticoids. Using a meta-analysis, we show that anthropogenic disturbances are consistently associated with increased glucocorticoids regardless of the type of human disturbance. We also show that males may be more sensitive to anthropogenic disturbances than females and that faecal glucocorticoids, but not baseline plasma glucocorticoids, consistently increase in response to anthropogenic disturbances. Finally, we discuss how increases in glucocorticoids in free-living animals can sometimes enhance survival and reproduction. Unfortunately, our literature analysis indicates that this observation has not yet gained traction, and very few studies have shown that increases in glucocorticoid levels resulting from anthropogenic disturbances decrease survival or reproduction. We think that the use of measures of glucocorticoids in conservation physiology has tremendous potential, but there are still a number of methodological concerns, in addition to several crucial questions that should be addressed.


Anthropogenic disturbance; biodiversity; conservation physiology; fitness; meta-analysis; stress

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