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Prey cortisol affects the usefulness of fecal glucocorticoid metabolite concentration as an indicator of stress in a carnivore

McDonald, R.S., Roth, J.D., Anderson, W.G.
Canadian journal of zoology 2018 v.96 no.4 pp. 367-371
Vulpes lagopus, carnivores, corticosterone, cortisol, diet, feces, females, foxes, males, metabolites, predators, wild animals
The noninvasive nature of sample collection makes analysis of fecal hormone concentrations useful for examining endocrine responses in free-living wild animals. Glucocorticoid hormones (i.e., cortisol and corticosterone) are frequently measured as an indicator of activation of the endocrine stress axis. However, many factors may influence glucocorticoid concentrations in feces, and the influence of prey glucocorticoids on concentrations in the feces of predators is rarely considered. We tested whether cortisol consumption influenced concentrations of glucocorticoid metabolites in feces of captive Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus (Linnaeus, 1758)) by adding cortisol (5 mg cortisol per kg fox body mass) to the foxes’ diet. Food supplemented with supraphysiological concentrations of cortisol increased fecal glucocorticoid metabolite concentrations of Arctic foxes by 97% in males and 51% in females, compared with controls. In addition, fecal metabolite concentrations in nontreatment samples were higher for females (22.2 ± 3.3 ng·g⁻¹, mean ± SE) than males (13.3 ± 1.5 ng·g⁻¹), suggesting female Arctic foxes may have higher baseline cortisol concentrations or females may be more sensitive to captivity or relocation. These results indicate that prey cortisol can influence measurement of glucocorticoid metabolites in carnivore feces and suggest caution may be needed when interpreting such measurements in wild carnivores.