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Experimental Increases in Glucocorticoids Alter Function of the HPA Axis in Wild Red Squirrels without Negatively Impacting Survival and Reproduction

Hormones such as glucocorticoids (colloquially referred to as “stress hormones”) have important effects on animal behavior and life-history traits, yet most of this understanding has come through correlative studies. While experimental studies offer the ability to assign causality, there are important methodological concerns that are often not considered when manipulating hormones, including glucocorticoids, in wild animals. In this study, we examined how experimental elevations of cortisol concentrations in wild North American red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) affected their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis reactivity and life-history traits, including body mass, litter survival, and adult survival. The effects of exogenous cortisol on plasma cortisol concentrations depended on the time between treatment consumption and blood sampling. In the first 9 h after consumption of exogenous cortisol, individuals had significantly higher true baseline plasma cortisol concentrations, but adrenal gland function was impaired as indicated by their dampened response to capture and handling and to injections of adrenocorticotropic hormone compared to controls. Approximately 24 h after consumption of exogenous cortisol, individuals had much lower plasma cortisol concentrations than controls, but adrenal function was restored. Corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG) concentrations were also significantly reduced in squirrels treated with cortisol. Despite these profound shifts in the functionality of the HPA axis, squirrel body mass, offspring survival, and adult survival were unaffected by experimental increases in cortisol concentrations. Our results highlight that even short-term experimental increases in glucocorticoids can affect adrenal gland functioning and CBG concentrations but without other side effects.