Journal of Comparative Physiology B

, Volume 185, Issue 5, pp 463–486 | Cite as

Stress physiology in marine mammals: how well do they fit the terrestrial model?

  • Shannon Atkinson
  • Daniel Crocker
  • Dorian Houser
  • Kendall Mashburn


Stressors are commonly accepted as the causal factors, either internal or external, that evoke physiological responses to mediate the impact of the stressor. The majority of research on the physiological stress response, and costs incurred to an animal, has focused on terrestrial species. This review presents current knowledge on the physiology of the stress response in a lesser studied group of mammals, the marine mammals. Marine mammals are an artificial or pseudo grouping from a taxonomical perspective, as this group represents several distinct and diverse orders of mammals. However, they all are fully or semi-aquatic animals and have experienced selective pressures that have shaped their physiology in a manner that differs from terrestrial relatives. What these differences are and how they relate to the stress response is an efflorescent topic of study. The identification of the many facets of the stress response is critical to marine mammal management and conservation efforts. Anthropogenic stressors in marine ecosystems, including ocean noise, pollution, and fisheries interactions, are increasing and the dramatic responses of some marine mammals to these stressors have elevated concerns over the impact of human-related activities on a diverse group of animals that are difficult to monitor. This review covers the physiology of the stress response in marine mammals and places it in context of what is known from research on terrestrial mammals, particularly with respect to mediator activity that diverges from generalized terrestrial models. Challenges in conducting research on stress physiology in marine mammals are discussed and ways to overcome these challenges in the future are suggested.


Stress response Stress physiology Stressor Hypothalamo-pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis) Cortisol Corticosterone 



We thank Mike Weise and the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) for highlighting the lack of knowledge about stress physiology in marine mammals. The participants of two workshops, one at ONR in Virginia, and the other at the 15th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, provided many insightful discussions on evaluating the stress response in marine mammals. Numerous field crews and lab technicians have also added to our understanding. Drs. Kathleen Hunt and Frances Gulland provided friendly reviews that substantially improved the manuscript, as did four anonymous reviewers. Ms. Angela Kameroff-Steeves provided help with the preparation of the manuscript. This work was funded by a grant from the Office of Naval Research to S. Atkinson (ONR Award No. 00014121-290).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shannon Atkinson
    • 1
  • Daniel Crocker
    • 2
  • Dorian Houser
    • 3
  • Kendall Mashburn
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, Juneau CenterUniversity of Alaska FairbanksJuneauUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologySonoma State UniversityRohnert ParkUSA
  3. 3.National Marine Mammal FoundationSan DiegoUSA

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