Group size and visitor numbers predict faecal glucocorticoid concentrations in zoo meerkats.
Citable Link (URL):http://resolver.sub.uni-goettingen.de/purl?gs-1/14957
Measures of physiological stress in zoo animals can give important insights into how they are affected by aspects of their captive environment. We analysed the factors influencing variation in glucocorticoid metabolites in faeces (fGCs) from zoo meerkats as a proxy for blood cortisol concentration, high levels of which are associated with a stress response. Levels of fGCs in captive meerkats declined with increasing group size. In the wild, very small groups of meerkats are at a higher risk of predation, while in larger groups, there is increased competition for resources. Indeed, group sizes in captivity resemble those seen in unstable coalitions in the wild, which may represent a stressful condition and predispose meerkats to chronic stress, even in the absence of natural predators. Individuals in large enclosures showed lower levels of stress, but meerkat density had no effect on the stress measures. In contrast with data from wild meerkats, neither sex, age nor dominance status predicted stress levels, which may reflect less food stress owing to more equal access to resources in captivity versus wild. The median number of visitors at the enclosure was positively correlated with fGC concentrations on the following day, with variation in the visitor numbers having the opposite effect. Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that there is an optimum group size which minimizes physiological stress in meerkats, and that zoo meerkats at most risk of physiological stress are those kept in small groups and small enclosures and are exposed to consistently high numbers of visitors.