Ecology and Evolution
Measurement of stress hormone metabolites in fecal samples has become a common method to assess physiological stress in wildlife populations. Glucocorticoid metabolite (GCM) measurements can be collected noninvasively, and studies relating this stress metric to anthropogenic disturbance are increasing. However, environmental characteristics (e.g., temperature) can alter measured GCM concentration when fecal samples cannot be collected immediately after defecation. This effect can confound efforts to separate environmental factors causing predeposition physiological stress in an individual from those acting on a fecal sample postdeposition. We used fecal samples from American pikas (Ochotona princeps) to examine the influence of environmental conditions on GCM concentration by (1) comparing GCM concentration measured in freshly collected control samples to those placed in natural habitats for timed exposure, and (2) relating GCM concentration in samples collected noninvasively throughout the western United States to local environmental characteristics measured before and after deposition. Our timed-exposure trials clarified the spatial scale at which exposure to environmental factors postdeposition influences GCM concentration in pika feces. Also, fecal samples collected from occupied pika habitats throughout the species' range revealed significant relationships between GCM and metrics of climate during the postdeposition period (maximum temperature, minimum temperature, and precipitation during the month of sample collection). Conversely, we found no such relationships between GCM and metrics of climate during the predeposition period (prior to the month of sample collection). Together, these results indicate that noninvasive measurement of physiological stress in pikas across the western US may be confounded by climatic conditions in the postdeposition environment when samples cannot be collected immediately after defecation. Our results reiterate the importance of considering postdeposition environmental influences on this stress metric, especially in multiregional comparisons. However, measurements of fecal GCM concentration should prove useful for population monitoring within an eco-region or when postdeposition exposure can be minimized.
Wilkening, Jennifer L; Ray, Chris; and Varner, Johanna, "When can we measure stress noninvasively? Postdeposition effects on a fecal stress metric confound a multiregional assessment." (2016). Institute of Arctic & Alpine Research Faculty Contributions. 2.