On the use of non-invasive hormone research in uncontrolled, natural environments: the problem with sex, diet, metabolic rate and the individual


Correspondence author. E-mail: goymann@orn.mpg.de


1. Methods to measure metabolites of steroid hormones from faeces have become very popular in wildlife conservation and ecology, because they allow gathering physiological data without the necessity to capture the animals. However, this advantage comes at costs that are particularly relevant when studying free-living animals in their natural environments. Previous methodological reviews have stressed the importance of validations to prove that real metabolites of the hormone in question are measured, but the research community has largely ignored further caveats relating to sex, diet, metabolic rate and individual differences in hormone metabolite formation.

2. Often the sexes differ in how they metabolize hormones. As a consequence, one may not be able to compare hormone metabolite concentrations between males and females of one species.

3. Diet can alter the way hormones are metabolized, and different diets can change the amount of faecal bulk. Both phenomena can result in measurement artefacts that may seriously distort the estimation of hormone metabolite concentrations. As a consequence, comparisons of hormone metabolite concentrations, for example, between seasons or populations, may become problematic.

4. Changes in ambient temperature and food availability may trigger large fluctuations in metabolic rate of free-living animals. These fluctuations may then result in major distortions of faecal hormone metabolite concentrations without any change in bioactive hormone levels.

5. Bacteria metabolize hormones in the gut. Individual differences in bacterial composition can cause differences in how hormones are decomposed. Thus, individuals may differ with regard to what kind of hormone metabolites they form and with regard to the relative composition of these hormone metabolites. As only specific metabolites are measured, differences in metabolism may distort the results.

6. In summary, non-invasive hormone research measures various end products of a hormone after its clearance from the circulation and extensive modification by bacteria. Not only does this increase random variance, it may also generate systematic noise, which may seriously distort the signal (i.e. the hormonal status of the individual) in a non-random manner. Thus, we still need to learn much more about whether this widely used technique reliably measures the physiological status of animals in uncontrolled environments.