Adrenocortical response to stress and thyroid hormone status in free-living nestling white storks (Ciconia ciconia) exposed to heavy metal and arsenic contamination.

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    • Abstract:
      Background/Objective: Endocrine parameters have proven useful in the detection of early or low-level responses to pollutants. Although most of the studies on endocrine modulation have been focused on processes involving gonadal steroids, contaminants may target other parts of the endocrine system as well. In this study we examined the adrenocortical stress response and thyroid hormone status in free-living nestling white storks (Ciconia ciconia) in relation to heavy metals (zinc, lead, copper, cadmium) and arsenic levels in blood. Methods: Fieldwork was conducted in an area polluted by the Aznalcóllar mine accident (southwestern Spain) and in a reference site. We used a standardized capture, handling, and restraint protocol to determine both baseline and maximum plasma corticosterone. Circulating levels of thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) were also measured.ResultsNo effects of metals or As were found on baseline corticosterone, but maximum levels of corticosterone were positively related to Pb in both locations. This relationship was stronger in single nestlings than in birds from multiple-chick broods, which suggests a greater impact of Pb on more stressed individuals. Metal pollution did not affect plasma T4 or T3 levels, although thyroid status differed with location. Conclusions: Because a compromised hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function can have far-reaching consequences in terms of altered behavioral and metabolic processes necessary for survival, our results suggest that birds exposed to sublethal Pb levels may be at risk through an altered adrenocortical stress response, and further support the idea that HPA axis-related end points might be useful indicators of metal exposure and potential toxicity in wild animals. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]