The use of leukocyte profiles to measure stress in vertebrates: a review for ecologists


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1A growing number of ecologists are turning to the enumeration of white blood cells from blood smears (leukocyte profiles) to assess stress in animals. There has been some inconsistency and controversy in the ecological literature, however, regarding their interpretation. The inconsistencies may stem partly from a lack of information regarding how stress affects leukocytes in different taxa, and partly from a failure on the part of researchers in one discipline to consult potentially informative literature from another.
  • 2Here, we seek to address both issues by reviewing the literature on the leukocyte response to stress, spanning the taxa of mammals (including humans), birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish.
  • 3We show that much of the early literature points to a close link between leukocyte profiles and glucocorticoid levels. Specifically, these hormones act to increase the number and percentage of neutrophils (heterophils in birds and reptiles), while decreasing the number and percentage of lymphocytes. This phenomenon is seen in all five vertebrate taxa in response to either natural stressors or exogenous administration of stress hormones. For the ecologist, therefore, high ratios of heterophils or neutrophils to lymphocytes (‘H : L’ or ‘N : L’ ratios) in blood samples reliably indicate high glucocorticoid levels. Furthermore, this close relationship between stress hormones and N : L or H : L ratios needs to be highlighted more prominently in haematological assessments of stress, as it aids the interpretation of results.
  • 4As with hormone assays, there are challenges to overcome in the use of leukocytes profiles to assess levels of stress; however, there are also advantages to this approach, and we outline each. Given the universal and consistent nature of the haematological response to stress, plus the overwhelming evidence from the veterinary, biomedical and ecological literature reviewed here, we conclude that this method can provide a reliable assessment of stress in all vertebrate taxa.