Follow the spoor to diagnose stressed animals‚ say experts

07 November 2017 - 13:35 By Sammie Tafoya
Image: Jessica Lea from The University of Manchester

Are our zebras stressed? Experts say their poo has the answer.

The Cape mountain zebra‚ once an endangered species that dropped to just 80 individuals in 1950‚ has experienced healthy population growth since then thanks to conservation measures.

Now research by British scientists has shown that the environmental and social stressors facing the animals can be measured in hormones found in their droppings.

The scientists‚ from the University of Manchester and Chester Zoo‚ hope this will help conservationists assess the success of their work as well as identify future risks to species’ survival.

The research‚ published in Functional Ecology journal‚ was conducted among zebras in six game reserves in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape‚ and assessed the impact of poor habitat and gender imbalances on the species.

The study focused on analysing glucocorticoid hormones — the so-called fight or flight hormones which are markers of stress.

Dr Suzanne Schultz‚ the lead scientist on the project‚ said: “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 scientists’ groundbreaking “macrophysiological” approach involved comparing animals 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 paper said.

The paper’s lead author‚ Manchester’s Dr Jessica Lea‚ said the Cape mountain zebra was the perfect species for the study‚ because information already available on the zebra recovery in the conservation projects meant the scientists could assess the impacts of both environment and social factors on population health.

Dr Sue Walker‚ head of applied science at Chester Zoo‚ said: “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.”

- Tafoya is on an SIT Study Abroad programme. He wrote this story in association with Round Earth Media