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Netherlands Polar Data Center

Project - Effects of heavy metal contamination on stress response modulation and stress coping abilities in barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis)

Summary

Sub-lethal exposure to environmental contamination results in reduced reproductive success and population declines in vertebrates. Contamination also impairs physiological mechanisms, both short- and long-term. One such mechanism is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis or slow stress response. HPA activation ultimately synthesizes various stress hormones. Short-term activation of the HPA axis is beneficial, but long-term activation, where the HPA system is not deactivated, results in chronically elevated corticosterone levels ('chronic stress'). Low levels of chronic stress affect e.g. the immune system, whereas high levels have deleterious effects and can cause death. One effective way of stress reduction is through 'social support', the presence of social allies, which we will study in breeding barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) near Ny-Ãlesund, an area that underwent a mine spill 50 years ago. First we will perform stress tests on two groups of hand-raised goslings, one of which feeds on heavy metal exposed areas and a control, raised on clean locations. The stress response is measured from faecal droppings allowing for non-invasive corticosterone determination. Second, to determine long-term effects, we sample natural goose families of varying sizes (SF: 1-2 goslings; LF: +4 goslings) from clean areas (baseline) and contaminated areas. Due to social support, we predict reduced excretion of corticosterone in LFs from both areas, but also differing stress coping abilities (i.e. effect sizes of social support) in exposed and clean locations. This study is novel in that it focuses on consequences of environmental contamination on stress coping abilities in a wild population of a long-lived bird.

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