UBC Theses and Dissertations
Fecal triiodothyronine assay validation using captive Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) and subsequent application to free-ranging populations to examine nutritional stress Keech, Aaron L.
Reduced availability of high energy-content prey (nutritional stress) is a predominant hypothesis to explain the decline of Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) populations in western Alaska from the late 1970' s to the late 1990' s. Animals may physiologically respond to consuming insufficient prey by increasing stress levels and decreasing metabolic rates. It may thus be possible to identify nutritional stress by measuring concentrations of glucocorticoids (stress) and thyroid hormones (metabolism) shed in feces. However, techniques to measure thyroid hormone concentrations from Steller sea lion feces have not been developed. We quantified variation of triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) concentrations in Steller sea lion feces following injections of thyrotropin (TSH) into four captive animals. Glucocorticoids (GC) were also assayed to examine any relationship to stimulated thyroid hormone secretion. We found that fecal T3 peaked 48 h post-injection and increased 25-57% in three sea lions (all animals, p=0.03). Pre-injection GC increases indicated stress from isolation for baseline fecal collections, but post-injection increases could not be confirmed as a response to TSH injections or as a product of the study design. The results demonstrated that pre- and post-injection changes in fecal GC and T3 concentrations were consistent with predictions of an increased stress response and metabolic rate within the animals. We then measured T3 and GC concentrations in 834 Steller sea lion fecal samples collected in 2005 and 2006 from 15 sites (haulouts and rookeries) between British Columbia and the Central Aleutian Islands. Overall, GC concentrations did not differ between haulout populations (western 2006 pre-pupping and eastern 2005 post-pupping). Fecal hard-part analyses revealed a lower energy-content diet in the western population, suggesting that diet quality is a relevant hypothesis to explain slightly higher GC concentrations found in the western population, specifically the Aleutian Islands region. However, nutritional stress could not be substantiated through T3 concentrations. The rookeries possessed the highest energy-content diets, but also exhibited a nutritional stress response with a significantly higher GC and lower T3 concentration than either haulout population (possibly related to lactation or decreased foraging opportunities), but T3 comparisons performed at scales of site and region were inconclusive.
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