Thomas W. Small, Sara E. Bebus, Eli S. Bridge, Emily K. Elderbrock, Stephen M. Ferguson, Blake C. Jones, Stephan J. Schoech

Plasma glucocorticoid (CORT) levels collected within 3 min of capture are commonly believed to reflect pre-stressor, baseline CORT levels. Differences in these “baseline” values are often interpreted as reflecting differences in health, or the amount of social and environmental stress recently experienced by an individual. When interpreting “baseline” values it is generally assumed that any effect of capture-and-handling during the initial sampling period is small enough and consistent enough among individuals to not obscure pre-capture differences in CORT levels. However, plasma CORT increases in less than 3 min post-capture in many free-living, endothermic species in which timing has been assessed. In addition, the rate of CORT secretion and the maximum level attained (i.e., the degree of stress-responsiveness) during a severe stressor often differs among individuals of the same species. In Florida scrub-jays (Aphelocoma coerulescens), an individual’s stress-responsiveness during a 30 min post-capture stressor is correlated with CORT levels in samples collected within 1.5 min of capture, suggesting there is an intrinsic connection between stress-responsiveness and pre-capture CORT levels. Although differences in stress-responsiveness accounted for just 11% of the variance in these samples, on average, higher stress-responsive jays (top third of individuals) had baseline values twice that of lower stress-responsive jays (bottom third). Further, plasma CORT levels begin to increase around 2 min post-capture in this species, but the rate of increase between 2 and 3 min differs markedly with CORT increasing more rapidly in jays with higher stress-responsiveness. Together, these data indicate that baseline CORT values can be influenced by an individual’s stress response phenotype and the differences due to stress-responsiveness can be exaggerated during sample collection. In some cases, the effects of differences in stress-responsiveness and the increase in CORT during sample collection could obscure, or supersede, differences in pre-capture plasma CORT levels that are caused by extrinsic factors.

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