Ecology and Evolution
Glucocorticoids are often measured in wildlife to assess physiological responses to environmental or ecological stress. Hair, blood, saliva, or fecal samples are generally used depending on the timescale of the stress response being investigated and species‐specific considerations. Here, we report the first use of hair samples to measure long‐term corticosterone levels in the climate‐sensitive American pika (Ochotona princeps). We validated an immunoassay‐based measurement of corticosterone extracted from hair samples and compared corticosterone estimates obtained from plasma, hair, and fecal samples of nine pikas. To demonstrate an ecological application of this technique, we characterized physiological stress in 49 pikas sampled and released at eight sites along two elevational transects. Microclimate variation was measured at each site using both ambient and subsurface temperature sensors. We used an information theoretic approach to compare support for linear, mixed‐effects models relating corticosterone estimates to microclimate, body size, and sex. Corticosterone was measured accurately in pika hair samples after correcting for the influence of sample mass on corticosterone extraction efficiency. Hair‐ and plasma‐based estimates of corticosterone were weakly correlated. The best‐supported model suggested that corticosterone was lower in larger, male pikas, and at locations with higher ambient temperatures in summer. Our results are consistent with a general negative relationship between body mass and glucocorticoid concentration observed across mammalian species, attributed to the higher mass‐specific metabolic rates of smaller bodied animals. The higher corticosterone levels in female pikas likely reflected the physiological demands of reproduction, as observed in a wide array of mammalian species. Additionally, we establish the first direct physiological evidence for thermal stress in the American pika through nonlethal sampling of corticosterone. Interestingly, our data suggest evidence for cold stress likely induced during the summer molting period. This technique should provide a useful tool to researchers wishing to assess chronic stress in climate‐sensitive mammals.
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Waterhouse, Matthew D; Sjodin, Bryson; Ray, Chris; Erb, Liesl; Wilkening, Jennifer; and Russello, Michael A, "Individual-based analysis of hair corticosterone reveals factors influencing chronic stress in the American pika." (2017). Institute of Arctic & Alpine Research Faculty Contributions. 19.