Blubber and serum cortisol concentrations as indicators of the stress response and overall health status in striped dolphins

Elsevier, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology -Part A : Molecular and Integrative Physiology, Volume 272, October 2022
Agusti C., Carbajal A., Olvera-Maneu S., Domingo M., Lopez-Bejar M.

The impacts of environmental changes and anthropogenic threats in marine mammals are a growing concern for their conservation. In recent years, efforts have been directed to understand how marine mammals cope with stressors and to assess and validate stress biomarkers, mainly levels of glucocorticoid hormones (e.g. cortisol) in certain body tissues. The aims of this study were to assess the impact of different causes of stranding (chronically affected and bycaught striped dolphins) on cortisol concentrations in serum and in blubber; and to evaluate the association between cortisol levels in these tissues. Blubber and blood samples were collected from striped dolphins (n = 42) stranded on the Mediterranean coast between 2012 and 2018. Cortisol concentrations were measured by using enzyme immunoassay. A high correlation was found between circulating and blubber cortisol concentrations (R2 = 0.85, p < 0.01). Necropsies and pathological studies concluded that a third of the dolphins were bycaught in fishing nets and released by fishermen (Bycaught animals group), while the other two thirds were euthanized, or died, due to a disease or chronic condition (e.g. calves separated from the mother or animals infected with dolphin morbillivirus or Brucella ceti) that impeded survival (Chronically affected animals group). Cortisol concentrations (mean ± SD) were six times higher in chronically affected animals (35.3 ± 23 ng cortisol/g blubber and 6.63 ± 3.22 μg cortisol/dl serum) compared to those bycaught in fishing nets (6.2 ± 4.3 ng cortisol/g blubber and 1.15 ± 1.51 μg cortisol/dl serum). Results suggests that serum and blubber cortisol concentrations can contribute in inferring the overall health and welfare of free-ranging cetaceans. However, further research is required to understand better the kinetics of blubber cortisol incorporation and removal, the factors involved in these processes, and the local conversion of cortisol in the blubber.