Obtaining plasma to measure baseline corticosterone concentrations in reptiles: How quick is quick enough?

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There is growing interest in the use of glucocorticoid (GC) hormones to understand how wild animals respond to environmental challenges. Blood is the best medium for obtaining information about recent GC levels; however, obtaining blood requires restraint and can therefore be stressful and affect GC levels. There is a delay in GCs entering blood, and it is assumed that blood obtained within 3 min of first disturbing an animal reflects a baseline level of GCs, based largely on studies of birds and mammals. Here we present data on the timing of changes in the principle reptile GC, corticosterone (CORT), in four reptile species for which blood was taken within a range of times 11 min or less after first disturbance. Changes in CORT were observed in cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus; 4 min after first disturbance), rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus; 2 min 30 s), and rock iguanas (Cyclura cychlura; 2 min 44 s), but fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus) did not exhibit a change within their 10-min sampling period. In both snake species, samples taken up to 3–7 min after CORT began to increase still had lower CORT concentrations than after exposure to a standard restraint stressor. The “3-min rule” appears broadly applicable as a guide for avoiding increases in plasma CORT due to handling and sampling in reptiles, but the time period in which to obtain true baseline CORT may need to be shorter in some species (rattlesnakes, rock iguanas), and may be unnecessarily limiting for others (cottonmouths, fence lizards).

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General and Comparative Endocrinology