Journal of Comparative Physiology B

, Volume 182, Issue 1, pp 139–155 | Cite as

Does habitat fragmentation cause stress in the agile antechinus? A haematological approach

  • Christopher P. Johnstone
  • Alan Lill
  • Richard D. Reina
Original Paper


Although the vertebrate stress response is essential for survival, frequent or prolonged stress responses can result in chronic physiological stress, which is associated with a suite of conditions that can impair survivorship and reproductive output. Anthropogenic habitat fragmentation and degradation are potential stressors of free-living vertebrates, and in theory could result in chronic stress. To address this issue, we compared haematological indicators of stress and condition in agile antechinus (Antechinus agilis) populations in 30 forest fragments and 30 undisturbed, continuous forest sites (pseudofragments) in south-eastern Australia over 2 years. In peripheral blood, the total leucocyte count was lower and the neutrophil/lymphocyte ratio and percentage of eosinophils in the total leucocyte population was higher in fragment than pseudofragment populations, indicating that fragment populations were probably experiencing higher levels of stress hormone-mediated and/or parasite infection-related chronic physiological stress. The total erythrocyte count and haematocrit were higher and mean erythrocyte haemoglobin content was lower in fragment than pseudofragment populations. This suggests that fragment populations showed possible signs of regenerative anaemia, a syndrome associated with elevated hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis mediated stress. However, mean erythrocyte volume was also lower in fragments, and red blood cell distribution width did not differ between the study populations, findings which were not consistent with this diagnosis. Whole blood and mean cell haemoglobin concentrations were similar in fragment and pseudofragment populations. We suggest that where anthropogenic activity results in habitat fragmentation and degradation, chronic stress could contribute to a decline in agile antechinus populations. The broader implication is that chronic stress could be both symptomatic of, and contributing to, decline of some vertebrate populations in anthropogenically fragmented and degraded habitats.


Antechinus agilis Neutrophil/lymphocyte ratio Physiological stress Repeatability Small mammal 



Trapping and sampling were conducted under Monash University Biological Sciences Animal Ethics Committee approvals BSCI/2008/03 and BSCI/2006/05 and Department of Sustainability and Environment permit 10003798. This research was supported by the Holsworth Wildlife Fund and access to study sites was kindly granted by private landowners throughout the South Gippsland region. Field accommodation was provided by Parks Victoria, J. & S. Bell, G. & J. Wallis, D. & M. Hook and D. Farrar. We also thank C. Rankin for access to South Gippsland Shire council reserves. The support, co-operation and enthusiasm of many individuals and groups helped to facilitate this project, notably the South Gippsland Conservation Society, Venus Bay Landcare and Anders Inlet Landcare. The following are a small fraction of the many people who deserve special thanks and recognition: Eric Cumming, John and Sue Bell, Rick and Marion Bowron (and Johnny), Mary Ellis, David Farrar, Ian Gunn, Daryl and Margaret Hook, Geoff Hutchinson, David Kelly, Martin Newman and Alex and Herb Wilde. We also thank the anonymous reviewers who have provided helpful and insightful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher P. Johnstone
    • 1
  • Alan Lill
    • 1
  • Richard D. Reina
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Biological SciencesMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

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