Social, state-dependent and environmental modulation of faecal corticosteroid levels in free-ranging female spotted hyenas

Wolfgang Goymann, Marion L. East, Bettina Wachter, Oliver P. Höner, Erich Möstl, Thomas J. Van't Holf, Heribert Hofer


Little is known about to what extent the sensitivity of the hypothalamic - pituitary - adrenal (HPA) axis may be state dependent and vary in the same species between environments. Here we tested whether the faecal corticosteroid concentrations of matrilineal adult female spotted hyenas are influenced by social and reproductive status in adjacent ecosystems and whether they vary between periods with and without social stress. Females in the Serengeti National Park frequently become socially subordinate intruders in other hyena territories by undertaking long-distance foraging trips to migratory herds, whereas in the Ngorongoro Crater they usually forage inside their own small territories on resident prey. The faecal corticosteroid concentrations in Serengeti females were significantly higher than in Ngorongoro females. Energy expenditure by lactation is exceptionally high in spotted hyenas and this may be reflected in their corticosteroid levels. The faecal corticosteroid levels in both populations were higher in lactating than in non-lactating females. During periods of social stability, faecal corticosteroid concentrations increased in non-lactating females but not in lactating females as social status declined. Lactating Serengeti females had significantly higher faecal corticosteroid concentrations during periods with acute severe social stress than during periods without, indicating that the HPA axis is sensitive to social stimuli even in lactating females. So far few studies have used non-invasive monitoring methods for assessing social stress in freeranging animals. This study demonstrates for the first time, to the authors' knowledge, that corticosteroid concentrations may differ between periods with and without social stress for a free-ranging female mammal and that the modulating effect of social status may depend on reproductive status.


  • This paper is dedicated to Wolfgang Wickler on the occasion of his seventieth birth day.

  • *Author and address for correspondence: Department of Zoology, University of Washington, Box 351800, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.

  • Present Address: Department of Biological Science, Wright State University, 3640 Colonel Glenn Highway, Dayton, OH 45435, USA.