Non-invasive evaluation of physiological stress in an iconic Australian marsupial: The Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)
Edward J. NarayanA,*, Koa WebsterC, Vere Nicolson B, Al MucciB, Jean-Marc HeroA
AEnvironmental Futures Centre, School of Environment, Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus, QLD 4222, Australia
BDreamworld, Parkway Coomera, QLD 4209, Australia
CDepartment of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia
Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are the only extant representatives of Australia’s unique marsupial family Phascolarctidae and were listed as nationally Vulnerable in 2012. Causes of mortality are diverse, although the disease chlamydiosis, dog attacks, collisions with cars, and loss of habitat represent the principal reasons for the continued species decline. Koala breeding facilities in Queensland and New South Wales, Australia have been established for conservation and tourism. Non-invasive monitoring of physiological stress is important for determining the sub-lethal effects of environmental stressors on the well-being, reproduction and survival of Koalas in Zoos and also in the wild. In this study, we developed a faecal cortisol metabolite (FCM) enzyme-immunoassay (EIA) for monitoring physiological stress in Koalas from two established Zoos in Australia and also within a free-living sub-population from Queensland. Biological validation of the FCM EIA was done using an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) challenge. We discovered excretory lag-times of FCM of 24 h in females (n = 2) and 48 h in male (n = 2) Koalas in response to the ACTH challenge. FCM levels showed an episodic and delayed peak response lasting up to 9 days post ACTH challenge. This finding should be taken into consideration when designing future experiments to study the impacts of short-term (acute) and chronic stressors on the Koalas. Laboratory validations were done using parallelism and recovery checks (extraction efficiency) of the cortisol standard against pooled Koala faecal extracts. Greater than 99% recovery of the cortisol standard was obtained as well as a parallel displacement curve against Koala faecal extracts. FCM levels of the captive Koalas (n = 10 males and 13 females) significantly differed by sex, reproductive condition (lactating versus non-lactating Koalas) and the handling groups. Handled male Koalas had 200% higher FCM levels than their non-handled counterparts, while females were not affected by handling as long they were not undergoing lactation. There was no significant difference in FCM levels between the captive and wild Koalas (n = 9 males and 7 females). Overall, these results provide foundation knowledge on non-invasive FCM analysis in this iconic Australian marsupial. Non-invasive stress endocrinology opens up opportunities for evaluating the sub-lethal physiological effects of management activities (including caging, translocation) on the nutritional status, reproductive behaviors and disease status of captive and managed in situ Koala populations.