Monitoring physiological stress in semi-free ranging populations of an endangered Australian marsupial, the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)

Abstract

Rapid and reliable physiological evaluation of stress is necessary for understanding the potential impacts of environmental changes on managed populations of threatened mammals. In situ populations of Australia’s iconic marsupial, the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), are nearing extinction due to the impacts of competition and predation by feral animals and unpredictable climatic events (summer heat waves). In this study, we focussed our aim to identify a non-invasive method to measure adrenal activity in the species and also to identify potential factors that should be considered when comparing physiological stress in semi-free ranging populations of the species. We validated an enzyme immunoassay (EIA) for detecting fecal cortisol metabolites (FCM) from fresh fecal pellets taken from bilbies within four captive sites and two semi-free ranging populations around Queensland and New South Wales, Australia. Our FCM EIA successfully detected the ‘raise and fall’ pattern of FCM levels within 3 days of exogenous adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) challenge. Mean FCM levels differed significantly between the captive sites and between sexes. All male bilbies grouped outdoor in captivity expressed the highest mean FCM level in comparison to all captive males that were housed individually or as groups indoors. Also, semi-free ranging bilbies expressed higher mean FCM levels than the captive bilbies. Overall, our study successfully validated a non-invasive tool for monitoring physiological stress in the greater bilby. In the future, it will be worthwhile to consider factors such as housing conditions, sex and location when comparing the adrenal sensitivity to environmental changes, to help evaluate the success of management interventions (such as predator free enclosures) and support the survival of the species.

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Acknowledgments

This project was completed in accordance with approval from Griffith University’s Animal Ethics Committee (ENV/17/11/AEC). Field work was conducted under Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection scientific permit number WITK10064911. This research was undertaken as an Honours Research Project by NE that was co-supervised jointly by EJN and J-MH. We would like to thank the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service for providing field equipment, on-site accommodation and other facilities whilst sampling in the field. Special thanks to numerous volunteers assisted with the fieldwork and Greg Lollback provided feedback on earlier version of this manuscript. We also thank the staff of Dreamworld, Ipswich Nature Centre, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and Charleville Breeding centre for all their help and cooperation. We also thank the veterinarians Vere Nicolson and Michael Pyne who assisted with applying the ACTH and saline treatments. Funding was provided by Save the Bilby Fund and Griffith University. We are grateful to the editor and two anonymous referees for helpful reviews and comments.

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Correspondence to Edward J. Narayan.

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Communicated by A. W. Sainsbury

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Narayan, E.J., Evans, N. & Hero, JM. Monitoring physiological stress in semi-free ranging populations of an endangered Australian marsupial, the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis). Eur J Wildl Res 60, 727–735 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10344-014-0842-z

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Keywords

  • Australian marsupial
  • Macrotis lagotis
  • Semi-wild populations
  • Predation
  • Conservation physiology
  • Physiological stress