Endocrine responses to diverse stressors of capture, entanglement and stranding in leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea)

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Abstract

Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are exposed to many anthropogenic stressors, yet almost no data on stress physi- ology exist for this species. As a first step toward understanding the physiological responses of leatherback turtles to stress, and with the particular goal of assessment of the effect of capture, we quantified corticosterone (an adrenal stress hormone) and thyroxine (a regulator of metabolic rate, often inhibited by chronic stress) in 17 healthy leatherback turtles captured at sea for scientific study, with comparisons to 15 ‘distressed’ leatherbacks that were found entangled in fishing gear (n = 8), confined in a weir net (n = 1) or stranded on shore (n = 6). Distressed leatherbacks had significantly elevated corticosterone (mean ± SEM 10.05 ± 1.72 ng/ml, median 8.38 ng/ml) and free thyroxine (mean 0.86 ± 0.37 pg/ml, median 0.08 pg/ml) com- pared with healthy leatherbacks sampled immediately before release (after ∼40 min of handling; corticosterone, mean 4.97 ± 0.62 ng/ml, median 5.21 ng/ml; and free thyroxine, mean 0.05 ± 0.05 pg/ml, median 0.00 pg/ml). The elevated thyrox- ine in distressed turtles compared with healthy turtles might indicate an energetic burden of entanglement and stranding. Six of the healthy leatherbacks were sampled twice, at ∼25 and ∼50 min after the time of first disturbance. In all six individuals, corticosterone was higher in the later sample (earlier sample, mean 2.74 ± 0.88 ng/ml, median 2.61 ng/ml; later sample, mean 5.43 ± 1.29 ng/ml, median 5.38 ng/ml), indicating that capture and handling elicit an adrenal stress response in this species. However, the corticosterone elevation after capture appeared relatively mild compared with the corticosterone concentra- tions of the entangled and stranded turtles. The findings suggest that capture and handling using the protocols described (e.g. capture duration <1 h) might represent only a mild stressor, whereas entanglement and stranding might represent mod- erate to severe stressors. Key

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Hunt, K. E., Innis, C. J., Merigo, C., & Rolland, R. M. (2016). Endocrine responses to diverse stressors of capture, entanglement and stranding in leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). Conservation Physiology, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/cow022

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