Response to long-distance relocation in Asian elephants (Elephas maximus): monitoring adrenocortical activity via serum, urine, and feces
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Understanding how elephants respond to potentially stressful events, such as relocation, is important for making informed management decisions. This study followed the relocation of eight Asian elephants from the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to mainland Australia. The first goal of this study was to examine patterns of adrenocortical activity as reflected in three different substrates: serum, urine, and feces. We found that the three substrates yielded very different signals of adrenocortical activity. Fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGM) increased as predicted post-transport, but urinary glucocorticoid metabolites (UGM) were actually lower following transport. Serum cortisol levels did not change significantly. We suggest that the differences in FGM and UGM may reflect changes in steroid biosynthesis, resulting in different primary glucocorticoids being produced at different stages of the stress response. Additional studies are needed to more thoroughly understand the signals of adrenocortical activity yielded by different substrates. The second goal was to examine individual variation in patterns of adrenal response. There was a positive correlation between baseline FGM value and duration of post-transfer increase in FGM concentration. Furthermore, an individual's adrenocortical response to relocation was correlated with behavioral traits of elephants. Elephants that were described by keepers as being “curious” exhibited a more prolonged increase in FGM post-transfer, and “reclusive” elephants had a greater increase in FGM values. Future research should investigate the importance of these personality types for the management and welfare of elephants.
KeywordsCortisol Glucocorticoids Individual variation Noninvasive Transfer Transport
We would like to thank all of the elephant keepers and staff at Melbourne Zoo, Taronga Zoo, and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands for their valued contributions to sample collection, survey completion, and assistance with the project. Thanks to Dr. Nadja Wielebnowski for helpful comments on the manuscript and to Heidi Kolkert for sample preparation.
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