The impact of age-class and social context on fecal glucocorticoid metabolite levels in free-ranging male giraffes

One of the primary sources of perceived stress is the social environment of an animal and the interactions with conspecifics. An essential component of the response to a stressor is the activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical axis, which results amongst others in a temporal increase in circulating glucocorticoid (GC) levels. Giraffes occur in a highly flexible fission-fusion social system and group compositions can change on a daily basis, with bulls establishing an age-related dominance hierarchy and showing a roaming strategy in the search for fertile females. The aim of this study was to noninvasively monitor the influence of different group compositions (mixed sex groups vs. all-male groups) on GC concentrations in free ranging giraffe bulls of different age classes. We collected fecal samples from free-ranging giraffe bulls for 12 months in a South African Private Game Reserve to examine age- and social context-related patterns of fecal GC metabolite (fGCM) concentrations. We found that fGCM levels in giraffe bulls are age-class dependent, as well as associated with changes in the social environment. Independently of the social setting, bulls of the youngest age class exhibited the highest fGCM levels compared to bulls of the other two older age-classes, with differences most pronounced when the bulls are associated in all-male groups. In contrast, an almost reversed picture appears when looking at the fGCM levels of sexually active individuals in mixed sex groups, where highest levels were found for the bulls in the oldest age-class, and the lowest for the bulls in the youngest age-class. The study stresses the importance to taking factors such as age-related status and social settings into account, when interpreting fGCM levels in free ranging giraffes.

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January 28, 2021
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