Author ORCID Identifier
0000-0001-8235-6411 : Oliver Love
Biomarker, Consistency, Corticosterone, Individual variation, Repeatability, Tree swallow
Labile physiological variables, such as stress hormones [i.e. glucocorticoids (GCs)], allow individuals to react to perturbations in their environment and may therefore reflect the effect of disturbances or positive conservation initiatives in advance of population-level demographic measures. Although the application of GCs as conservation biomarkers has been of extensive interest, few studies have explicitly investigated whether baseline GC concentrations respond to disturbances consistently across individuals. However, confirmation of consistent responses is of paramount importance to assessing the ease of use of GCs in natural systems and to making valid interpretations regarding population-level change (or lack of change) in GC concentrations. We investigated whether free-ranging female tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) display individually specific changes in baseline glucocorticoid concentrations naturally over the breeding season (from incubation to offspring provisioning) and in response to a manipulation of foraging profitability (representing a decrease in access to food resources). We show that baseline GC concentrations are repeatable within individuals over reproduction in natural conditions. However, in response to a reduction in foraging ability, baseline GC concentrations increase at the population level but are not repeatable within individuals, indicating a high level of within-individual variation. Overall, we suggest that baseline GCs measured on a subset of individuals may not provide a representative indication of responses to environmental change at the population level, and multiple within-individual measures may be necessary to determine the fitness correlates of GC concentrations. Further validation should be completed across a variety of taxa and life-history stages. Moving beyond a traditional cross-sectional approach by incorporating repeated-measures methods will be necessary to assess the suitability of baseline GCs as biomarkers of environmental change and population persistence, particularly from a logistical and ease-of-use perspective for conservation managers.
Madliger, Christine L. and Love, Oliver P.. (2016). Employing individual measures of baseline glucocorticoids as population-level conservation biomarkers: Considering within-individual variation in a breeding passerine. Conservation Physiology, 4 (1).