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Natural selection is expected to shape phenotypic traits that permit organisms to respond appropriately to the environments in which they live. One important mechanism by which animals cope with changes in their environment is through physiological responses to stressors mediated by glucocorticoid hormones. Here we perform biological and physiological validations of a minimally-invasive technique for assessing fecal corticosterone metabolites (FCMs) in captive and wild groups of yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris). Then we draw from ten years of data on these obligate hibernators at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado, USA to assess the extent to which seasonal and daily changes explain naturalistic variation in baseline levels of FCMs. Interestingly, beyond important population-level variation with respect to year, season, time of day, sex, age and reproductive state, we found repeatable inter-individual differences in FCMs, suggesting this hormonal trait might be a meaningful target of selection. FCM levels were 68% lower in captive than wild marmots, suggesting that the natural environment in which these animals occur is generally more challenging or less predictable than life in captivity. Most live-trapping events failed to represent stressors for wild marmots such that repeated measurements of traits were possible with minimal "stress" to subjects. We also document the natural ranges of annual and seasonal variation necessary for understanding the extent to which anthropogenic assaults represent stressors for wild mammals. Taken together, this study provides a foundation for understanding the evolution of hormonal traits and has important welfare and conservation implications for field biologists. Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Citation

Jennifer E Smith, Raquel Monclús, Danielle Wantuck, Gregory L Florant, Daniel T Blumstein. Fecal glucocorticoid metabolites in wild yellow-bellied marmots: experimental validation, individual differences and ecological correlates. General and comparative endocrinology. 2012 Sep 1;178(2):417-26

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PMID: 22732084

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