Physiological consequences of captive conditions in water voles (Arvicola terrestris)


T. P. Moorhouse, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, Tubney House, Abingdon Road, Tubney, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX13 5QL, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1865 393 101


Re-introductions of captive-bred animals are increasingly common in wildlife conservation and it is important that they fulfil their potential. To foster this goal we examined variations in stress levels in a captive-bred population of water voles Arvicola terrestris in response to housing conditions and radio-collaring, using weight loss and leukocyte coping capacity (LCC) as measures of relative stress, to investigate the impacts of housing conditions, handling and radio-collaring on this species. Thirty-eight water voles (22 males and 16 females) were used in the investigation, 25 housed in outdoor enclosures and 13 in laboratory cages. During the 6-week study, LCC, body weight and urine refractive index (URI, an indicator of hydration levels) were recorded once a week for each individual in weeks 1, 2, 4 and 6. After the first sample, radio-collars were attached to 20 individuals (10 males and 10 females) taken from both housing types. Throughout the experiment laboratory-cage housed voles weighed less, had lower LCC scores – indicating a reduced ability to combat infection – and had higher URIs than outdoor-enclosure voles. This suggests that the laboratory-cage voles were more stressed and dehydrated than the outdoor-enclosure voles. Weights and LCC scores of both housing groups decreased as the study progressed, suggesting that elements of the study, such as repeated handling, may have caused stress to both groups. Evidence suggested a short-term effect of radio-collaring on immuno-competence. We conclude that captive housing conditions, repeated manipulation and radio-collaring had demonstrable physiological effects on the water voles studied. We recommend that the effects of husbandry and tagging practices upon captive-bred mammals be closely studied as part of the quest to improve the success of the re-introductions to which they contribute.