The effect of ACTH upon faecal glucocorticoid excretion in the koala
Nicole Davies, Amber Gillett1, Clive McAlpine2, Leonie Seabrook2, Greg Baxter2, Daniel Lunney3,4 and Adrian Bradley
School of Biomedical Sciences, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia
1Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, Beerwah, Queensland 4519, Australia
2Landscape Ecology and Conservation Group, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia
3Office of Environment and Heritage NSW, PO Box 1967, Hurstville, New South Wales 2220, Australia
4School of Biology and Biotechnology, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Environmental changes result in physiological responses of organisms, which can adversely affect population dynamics and reduce resistance to disease. These changes are expressed in chronic levels of stress. The measurement of glucocorticoid (GC) concentrations in faeces is a non-invasive method for monitoring stress in wildlife. The metabolism and excretion of steroids differ significantly between species and, as a consequence, non-invasive methods must be physiologically validated for each species. Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are declining in numbers through much of their range. The role of chronic stress in koala populations has not been identified. Prior to the assessment of faecal GC concentrations in wild koala populations, the excretion timing and concentrations of GCs need to be determined. In this study, we assessed a method for identifying and measuring the concentrations of GC metabolites in faecal pellets of captive koalas following ACTH treatment. The results show that an elevation of plasma cortisol concentrations, using sustained release of ACTH, results in elevated concentrations of faecal cortisol/cortisol metabolites. Taking into account the excretion time lag, an increase in faecal cortisol metabolite concentrations corresponds to the release of GCs from the adrenal cortex as early as 36 h before faecal pellet collection. The calculations of steroid partitioning of plasma cortisol showed that the ACTH-stimulated values were significantly different from the control values for the concentrations of free, corticosteroid-binding globulin-bound and albumin-bound cortisol. This study validates the use of faecal cortisol analysis to assess the activity of the hypothalamo–pituitary–adrenocortical axis in freshly collected koala faecal pellets and indicates that the method should be suitable to assess the adrenocortical status of koalas in wild populations.