Effect of food limitation and reproductive activity on fecal glucocorticoid metabolite levels in banded mongooses
Laver, Pete N.
Ganswindt, Stefanie B.
Alexander, Kathleen A.
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Background Glucocorticoids mediate responses to perceived stressors, thereby restoring homeostasis. However, prolonged glucocorticoid elevation may cause homeostatic overload. Using extensive field investigations of banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) groups in northern Botswana, we assessed the influence of reproduction, predation risk, and food limitation on apparent homeostatic overload (n=13 groups, 1542 samples from 268 animals). We experimentally manipulated reproduction and regulated food supply in captive mongooses, and compared their glucocorticoid responses to those obtained from free-living groups. Results At the population level, variation in glucocorticoid levels in free-living mongooses was explained by food limitation: fecal organic matter, recent rainfall, and access to concentrated anthropogenic food resources. Soil macrofauna density and reproductive events explained less and predation risk very little variation in glucocorticoid levels. Reproduction and its associated challenges alone (under regulated feeding conditions) increased glucocorticoid levels 19-fold in a captive group. Among free-living groups, glucocorticoid elevation was seasonal (occurring in late dry season or early wet season when natural food resources were less available), but the timing of peak glucocorticoid production was moderated by access to anthropogenic resources (groups with fewer anthropogenic food sources had peaks earlier in dry seasons). Peak months represented 12- and 16-fold increases in glucocorticoids relative to nadir months with some animals exhibiting 100-fold increases. Relative to the captive group nadir, some free-living groups exhibited 60-fold increases in peak glucocorticoid levels with some animals exhibiting up to 800-fold increases. Most of these animals exhibited 1- to 10-fold increases relative to the captive animal peak. Conclusions Banded mongooses exhibit seasonal chronic glucocorticoid elevation, associated primarily with food limitation and secondarily with reproduction. Magnitude and duration of this elevation suggests that this may be maladaptive for some animals, with possible fitness consequences. In late dry season, this population may face a convergence of stressors (food limitation, agonistic encounters at concentrated food resources, evictions, estrus, mate competition, parturition, and predation pressure on pups), which may induce homeostatic overload.