Eye Region Surface Temperature Dynamics During Acute Stress Relate to Baseline Glucocorticoids Independently of Environmental Conditions

Abstract: Reactions to acute stressors are critical for survival. Yet, the challenges of assessing underlying physiological processes in the field limit our understanding of how variation in the acute stress response relates to fitness in free-living animals.

Glucocorticoid secretion during acute stress can be measured from blood plasma concentrations, but each blood sample can only provide information for one point in time. Also, the number of samples that can be extracted from an individual in the field is usually limited to avoid compromising welfare. This restricts capacity for repeated assessment, and therefore temporal resolution of findings within- and between-acute stress responses - both of which are important for determining links between acute stress and fitness.

Acute stress induces additional body surface temperature changes that can be measured non-invasively, and at high frequencies using thermal imaging, offering opportunities to overcome these limitations. But, this method's usefulness in the field depends on the extent that environmental conditions affect the body surface temperature response, which remains poorly understood. We assessed the relative importance of individual physiology (baseline glucocorticoid concentrations) and environmental conditions (air temperature and relative humidity) in determining the eye region surface temperature (Teye) response to acute stress, in wild blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) during trapping, handling and blood sampling.

When controlling for between-individual baseline variation, Teye initially dropped rapidly below, and then recovered above baseline, before declining more slowly until the end of the test, 160 s after trap closure. One measure of the amplitude of this response - the size of the initial drop in Teye - was dependent on environmental conditions, but not baseline corticosterone. Whereas, two properties defining response dynamics - the timing of the initial drop, and the slope of the subsequent recovery - were related to baseline corticosterone concentrations, independently of environmental conditions. This suggests inferring the acute stress response using thermal imaging of Teye will be practical under fluctuating environmental conditions in the field.

Access the full study here.

Reference: Paul Jerem, Susanne Jenni-Eiermann , Dorothy McKeegan , Dominic J McCafferty, Ruedi G Nager. (2019) Physiol Behav Oct 15;210:112627.

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