Seasonal variation in harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) blubber cortisol - A novel indicator of physiological state?

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Cortisol is one of the main glucocorticoid hormones involved in both the mammalian stress response, and in fat metabolism and energy regulation, making it of increasing interest as a biomarker for stress, health and overall physiological state. However, transient stress responses to animal handling and sampling may be important sources of measurement artefact when investigating circulating concentrations of this hormone in wildlife. Here, cortisol concentrations were measured in the plasma and, for the first time, in the blubber of live captured adult harbour seals (Phoca vitulina). Plasma cortisol concentrations were positively correlated with capture time, suggesting that they were largely driven by a stress response to the capture event. In contrast, blubber cortisol concentrations were shown not to be significantly affected by capture time and varied significantly by sex and by season, with higher concentrations during natural fasting periods of their life cycle, particularly during the moult. These results suggest that cortisol may play a key role in increased fat metabolism during highly energetically demanding periods, and that blubber concentrations have the potential to be used as physiological state indicators in phocid seals.
Original languageEnglish
Article number21889
Number of pages9
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 24 Feb 2016


  • Ecophysiology
  • Fat metabolism


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