Measures of physiological stress: A transparent or opaque window into the status, management and conservation of species?

Ben Dantzer, Quinn E. Fletcher, Rudy Boonstra, Michael J. Sheriff

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

334 Scopus citations


Conservation physiology proposes that measures of physiological stress (glucocorticoid levels) can be used to assess the status and future fate of natural populations. Increases in glucocorticoids may reflect a more challenging environment, suggesting that the influence of human activities on free-living animals could be quantified by measuring glucocorticoids. Biomedical studies suggest that chronic increases in glucocorticoids can have detrimental effects on survival and reproduction, which could influence the viability of populations. Here, we discuss the use of measurements of glucocorticoids in conservation physiology. We first provide an overview of the different methods to quantify glucocorticoids and their utility in conservation physiology. We then discuss five questions we think are essential for conservation physiologists to address. We highlight how intrinsic (e.g. sex, reproductive status, age, recent experiences) and ecological factors (e.g. predation, food availability, snowfall) can, by themselves or through their interactions with anthropogenic disturbances, affect the physiological stress response and mask any general patterns about the effects of anthropogenic disturbances on glucocorticoids. Using a meta-analysis, we show that anthropogenic disturbances are consistently associated with increased glucocorticoids regardless of the type of human disturbance. We also show that males may be more sensitive to anthropogenic disturbances than females and that faecal glucocorticoids, but not baseline plasma glucocorticoids, consistently increase in response to anthropogenic disturbances. Finally, we discuss how increases in glucocorticoids in free-living animals can sometimes enhance survival and reproduction. Unfortunately, our literature analysis indicates that this observation has not yet gained traction, and very few studies have shown that increases in glucocorticoid levels resulting from anthropogenic disturbances decrease survival or reproduction. We think that the use of measures of glucocorticoids in conservation physiology has tremendous potential, but there are still a number of methodological concerns, in addition to several crucial questions that should be addressed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalConservation Physiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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