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  1. The acute stress response can be considered the primary evolutionary adaptation to maximise fitness in the face of unpredictable environmental challenges. However, the difficulties of assessing physiology in natural environments mean comparatively little is known about how response variation influences fitness in free-living animals. Currently, determining acute stress physiology typically involves blood sampling or cardiac monitoring. Both require trapping and handling, interrupting natural behaviour, and potentially biasing our understanding toward trappable species/individuals. Importantly, limits on repeated sampling also restrict response phenotype characterisation, vital for linking stress with fitness. Surface temperature dynamics resulting from peripheral vasomotor activity during acute stress are increasingly promoted as alternative physiological stress indicators, which can be measured non-invasively using infrared thermal imaging, overcoming many limitations of current methods. Nonetheless, which aspects of stress physiology they represent remains unclear, as the underlying mechanisms are unknown. To date, validations have primarily targeted the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, when the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) system is likely the primary driver of vasomotor activity during acute stress. To address this deficit, we compared eye and bill region surface temperatures – measured using thermal imaging – with SAM system activity – measured as heart-rate-variability via electrocardiogram telemetry – in wild-caught captive house sparrows (Passer domesticus), during capture and handling. We found lower body surface temperatures were associated with increased sympathetic nervous system activation. Consequently, our data confirm body surface temperatures can act as a proxy for sympathetic activation during acute stress, providing potentially transformative opportunities for linking the acute stress response with fitness in the wild.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 28, 2024
  2. Measuring corticosterone in feathers allows researchers to make long-term, retrospective assessments of physiology with non-invasive sampling. To date, there is little evidence that steroids degrade within the feather matrix, however this has yet to be determined from the same sample over many years. In 2009, we made a pool of European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) feathers that had been ground to a homogenous powder using a ball mill and stored on a laboratory bench. Over the past 14 years, a subset of this pooled sample has been assayed via radioimmunoassay (RIA) 19 times to quantify corticosterone. Despite high variability across time (though low variability within assays), there was no effect of time on measured feather corticosterone concentration. In contrast, two enzyme immunoassays (EIA) produced higher concentrations than the samples assayed with RIA, though this difference is likely due to different binding affinities of the antibodies used. The present study provides further support for researchers to use specimens stored long-term and from museums for feather corticosterone quantification, and likely applies to corticosteroid measurements in other keratinized tissues. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 1, 2024
  3. Abstract

    Researchers have long sought to understand and predict an animal’s response to stressful stimuli. Since the introduction of the concept of homeostasis, a variety of model frameworks have been proposed to describe what is necessary for an animal to remain within this stable physiological state and the ramifications of leaving it. Romero et al. (Horm Behav 55(3):375–389, 2009) introduced the reactive scope model to provide a novel conceptual framework for the stress response that assumes an animal’s ability to tolerate a stressful stimulus may degrade over time in response to the stimulus. We provide a mathematical formulation for the reactive scope model using a system of ordinary differential equations and show that this model is capable of recreating existing experimental data. We also provide an experimental method that may be used to verify the model as well as several potential additions to the model. If future experimentation provides the necessary data to estimate the model’s parameters, the model presented here may be used to make quantitative predictions about physiological mediator levels during a stress response and predict the onset of homeostatic overload.

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  4. One of the biggest unanswered questions in the field of stress physiology is whether variation in chronic stress intensity will produce proportional (a gradient or graded) physiological response. We were specifically interested in the timing of the entrance into homeostatic overload, or the start of chronic stress symptoms. To attempt to fill this knowledge gap we split 40 captive house sparrows (Passer domesticus) into four groups (high stress, medium stress, low stress, and a captivity-only control) and subjected them to six bouts of chronic stress over a 6-month period. We varied the number of stressors/day and the length of each individual bout with the goal of producing groups that would experience different magnitudes of wear-and-tear. To evaluate the impact of chronic stress, at the start and end of each stress bout we measured body weight and three plasma metabolites (glucose, ketones, and uric acid) in both a fasted and fed state. All metrics showed significant differences across treatment groups, with the high stress group most frequently showing the greatest changes. However, the changes did not produce a consistent profile that matched the different chronic stress intensities. We also took samples after a prolonged recovery period of 6 weeks after the chronic stressors ended. The only group difference that persisted after 6 weeks was weight—all differences across groups in metabolites recovered. The results indicate that common blood metabolites are sensitive to stressors and may show signs of wear-and-tear, but are not reliable indicators of the intensity of long-term chronic stress. Furthermore, regulatory mechanisms are robust enough to recover within 6 weeks post-stress.

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  5. Abstract

    To further elucidate the role that wear‐and‐tear plays in the transition from acute to chronic stress, we manipulated the intensity and duration of applied chronic stress to determine if behavior would respond proportionately. We brought wild house sparrows into captivity and subjected them to high‐stress, medium‐stress, low‐stress, or captivity‐only. We varied the number of stressors per day and the duration of stress periods to vary wear‐and‐tear, and thus the potential to exhibit chronic stress symptoms. The behaviors we assessed were neophobia (the fear of the new; assessed via food approach latency) and perch hopping (activity). We predicted that our birds would show proportionate decreases in neophobia and activity throughout a long‐term chronic stress paradigm. Our results indicate that neophobia is sensitive to the intensity of chronic stress, however, the birds became more neophobic, which was the opposite of what we expected. Conversely, perch hopping did not differ across treatment groups and is thus not sensitive to the intensity of chronic stress. Together, these data show that different behavioral measurements are impacted differently by chronic stress.

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  6. This study highlights innovative, minimally-invasive glucose sensing sutures for monitoring glucose levels in house sparrows.

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  7. One aspect of the Reactive Scope Model is wear-and-tear, which describes a decrease in an animal’s ability to cope with a stressor, typically because of a period of chronic or repeated stressors. We investigated whether wear-and-tear due to chronic stress would accelerate a transition from phase II to phase III of fasting. We exposed house sparrows (Passer domesticus) to three weeks of daily fasts combined with daily intermittent repeated acute stressors to create chronic stress, followed by two weeks of daily fasts without stressors. We measured circulating glucose, β-hydroxybutyrate (a ketone), and uric acid in both fasted and fed states. We expected birds to be in phase II (high fat breakdown) in a fasted state, but if wear-and-tear accumulated sufficiently, we hypothesized a shift to phase III (high protein breakdown). Throughout the experiment, the birds exhibited elevated β-hydroxybutyrate when fasting but no changes in circulating uric acid, indicating that a transition to phase III did not occur. In both a fasted and fed state, the birds increased glucose mobilization throughout the experiment, suggesting wear-and-tear occurred, but was not sufficient to induce a shift to phase III. Additionally, the birds exhibited a significant decrease in weight, no change in corticosterone, and a transient decrease in neophobia with chronic stress. In conclusion, the birds appear to have experienced wear-and-tear, but our protocol did not accelerate the transition from phase II to phase III of fasting. 
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