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Knowl­edge on stress hor­mones in Zebra fae­ces improves con­ser­va­tion efforts

pub­lished 01 Novem­ber 2017 | mod­i­fied 01 Novem­ber 2017

How can Zebra excre­ment tell us what an animal’s response to cli­mate change and habi­tat destruc­tion will be?

That is what sci­en­tists from The Uni­ver­sity of Man­ches­ter and Chester Zoo have been inves­ti­gat­ing in South Africa. Together the team have been using ‘poo sci­ence’ to under­stand how chal­lenges or ‘stres­sors’, such as the destruc­tion and breakup of habi­tats, impact on pop­u­la­tions of South Africa’s Cape moun­tain zebra (Equus zebra ssp. zebra).

Cape mountain zebraCape moun­tain zebra (Equus zebra ssp. zebra).
Image credit the Uni­ver­sity of Manchester

To mea­sure ‘stress’ lev­els of the ani­mals the sci­en­tists have been analysing glu­co­cor­ti­coid hor­mones in the Cape zebra’s drop­pings. Glu­co­cor­ti­coid hor­mones are a group of steroid hor­mones that help reg­u­late the ‘flight or fight’ stress response in ani­mals. The research, which is pub­lished online on 31 Octo­ber in the jour­nal Func­tional Ecol­ogy, found that zebras are fac­ing mul­ti­ple chal­lenges, includ­ing poor habi­tat and gen­der imbal­ances, which are likely to com­pro­mise their health, have reper­cus­sions for their repro­duc­tion and, ulti­mately, a population’s long term survival.

Dr Susanne Shultz, the senior author from the School of Earth and Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ences (SEES) at Man­ches­ter, explains: ‘Fae­cal hor­mone mea­sure­ments are easy to col­lect with­out dis­turb­ing the ani­mals and pro­vide a win­dow into the chronic stress ani­mals are expe­ri­enc­ing. Using these indi­ca­tors we can estab­lish the health of both indi­vid­u­als and populations.’

The team have used a ‘macro­phys­i­o­log­i­cal approach’ for the first time ever to eval­u­ate the effec­tive­ness of an ongo­ing con­ser­va­tion plan. A macro­phys­i­o­log­i­cal approach involves com­par­ing ani­mal responses in dif­fer­ent nature reserves or geo­graph­i­cal regions. By eval­u­at­ing pat­terns of stress on a large scale, at-​risk pop­u­la­tions can be iden­ti­fied as their pro­file will dif­fer from healthy populations.

The researchers also found that using phys­i­o­log­i­cal bio­mark­ers, such as hor­mones from drop­pings, is an effec­tive way of eval­u­at­ing the impact of eco­log­i­cal and demo­graphic fac­tors on ani­mal pop­u­la­tions. This approach could also tell con­ser­va­tion­ists how other ani­mals and species might respond to future envi­ron­men­tal changes and stressors.

Zoos spe­cialise in pop­u­la­tion man­age­ment and have devel­oped a wide range of inno­v­a­tive tech­niques to mon­i­tor the species under their care. This project is a fan­tas­tic exam­ple of how we can use these knowl­edge and skills to also help the con­ser­va­tion of wild ani­mals threat­ened with extinction.

Dr Sue Walker, co-​author, Head of Applied Sci­ence, Chester zoo

As well as using this new approach the par­tic­u­lar species of the Zebra was also impor­tant. Dr Jes­sica Lea, from SEES and the paper’s lead author, added: ‘The Cape moun­tain zebra is an ideal model species to assess because it has under­gone huge eco­log­i­cal and demo­graphic changes in the recent years.

Fol­low­ing a mas­sive pop­u­la­tion decline, they have been actively con­served for the past sev­eral decades. The infor­ma­tion avail­able on their recov­ery means we can mea­sure the impacts of both envi­ron­ment and social fac­tors on pop­u­la­tion health.’ The cur­rent con­ser­va­tion sta­tus of the Cape moun­tain zebra is con­sid­ered as Vul­ner­a­ble accord­ing the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species.

Com­bin­ing SEES’s knowl­edge in macro-​ecology with Chester Zoo’s exper­tise in wildlife phys­i­ol­ogy allowed the team to gain cru­cial insights into the Cape Moun­tain zebra ecol­ogy. This then trans­lated into prac­ti­cal applied con­ser­va­tion man­age­ment ini­tia­tives to sup­port the species.

Dr Shultz added: ‘Under­stand­ing the fac­tors lead­ing to global bio­di­ver­sity loss is a major soci­etal chal­lenge. In an ever-​changing envi­ron­ment, new prob­lems arise quickly so it is essen­tial we use evidence-​based meth­ods to con­tin­u­ally eval­u­ate the effec­tive­ness of con­ser­va­tion projects.’

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Man­ches­ter news release, 01.11.2017)

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