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Assessment of season-dependent body condition scores in relation to faecal glucocorticoid metabolites in free-ranging Asian elephants.

ABSTRACT

We studied seasonal and annual changes in visual body condition scores (BCSs), and assessed how these scores were related to levels of faecal glucocorticoid metabolites (fGCMs) in free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in the seasonally dry tropical forests of the Mysore and Nilgiri Elephant Reserves in southern India. We assessed the animals' BCS visually on a scale of 1 to 5; where 1 represents a very thin and 5 represents a very fat elephant. To understand the influence of seasonality on BCS, we sampled the population during dry (n = 398) and wet seasons (n = 255) of 2013 and 2015 while, for annual changes in BCS, we sampled nine free-ranging adult females from different family groups that had been repeatedly sighted over seven years. To evaluate the influence of body condition on fGCM, 307 faecal samples were collected from 261 different elephants and were analysed. As a parameter of adrenocortical activity, and thus stress, fGCM was measured (μg/g) in the ethanol-extracted samples using a group-specific 11-oxoaetiocholanolone EIA (antibody raised against 11-oxoaetiocholanolone-17-CMO:BSA and biotinylated-11-oxoaetiocholanolone as a label). Effect of age and season on BCS in relation to fGCM was also studied. A seasonal shift in BCS was observed as expected, i.e. individuals with low BCS were more frequent during the dry season when compared with the wet season. Concentrations of fGCM were highest in individuals with lowest BCS (BCS 1) and then significantly declined till BCS 3. fGCM levels were almost comparable for BCS 3, 4 and 5. This pattern was more conspicuous in female than in male elephants. Season-dependent BCS, hence, reflect the stress status as measured by fGCM, especially in female Asian elephants. This could be used as an important non-invasive approach to monitor the physiological health of free-ranging elephant populations.