Many studies have recently focused on stress as a marker of an animal's well being. Since animals respond to a stressor by increasing their glucocorticoid (GC) levels there has been much interest in measuring these hormones. Fecal GC analyses have been used in a wide range of studies as they are an easily obtained, non-invasive measure of these stress hormones. However, these analyses rest on two major assumptions. First, they assume that fecal GC metabolites reflect free, biologically active levels of GCs in the plasma. Second, they assume that differences in fecal GC metabolite levels among animals are an accurate reflection of their physiological state and thus of their ability to respond to a stressor. We tested these assumptions in a population of free-ranging snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) in the southwestern Yukon, from 2006 to 2008. Both assumptions were verified. Plasma free cortisol levels mirrored bile and fecal cortisol metabolite (FCM) levels, but plasma total cortisol levels did not. Differences in FCM concentrations among hares robustly predicted their response to a hormonal challenge. Hares with higher FCM concentrations showed a greater resistance to the suppression of their free plasma cortisol following a dexamethasone injection and a more marked increase of free plasma cortisol following an ACTH injection. Furthermore, we found that changes in FCM concentrations in autumn and winter over two years reliably tracked changes in plasma free cortisol levels obtained from the hormonal challenge test. These results indicate that both fecal and plasma measures of an animal's stress physiology are concordant: they tell the same story.
Sheriff, M., Krebs, C., & Boonstra, R. (2010). Assessing stress in animal populations: Do fecal and plasma glucocorticoids tell the same story? General and Comparative Endocrinology, 166, 614-619. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2009.12.017