Thursday, October 6, 2011

Field Stress Techniques

One of my projects this field season is to determine the seasonal variation of cortisol concentrations in wild degus during the breeding season. As I blogged earlier, I’ll be collecting four blood samples from each degu: baseline, stress-induced, dexamethasone (DEX) challenge, and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) challenge. Here’s a quick overview of the four samples:

The baseline sample is taken within 3 minutes of capture (remember, CORT starts to increase 3 minutes after a stressor) and represents the typical levels of CORT an animal experiences throughout the day. The stress-induced sample is taken 30 minutes after capture and tells me how much an animal increases its CORT levels after encountering a major stressor. After the stress-induced sample, I then inject the animal with a DEX (a synthetic version of CORT) and wait 90 minutes before taking another blood sample. DEX binds to CORT receptors, thus initiating negative feedback, so the DEX sample gives me a good idea of how well the animal can turn of its stress response. After collecting the DEX sample, I then inject the animal with ACTH, wait 15 minutes, and then take my final blood sample. ACTH stimulates CORT release from the adrenal glands, so this sample will tell me the maximum amount of CORT an animal can release.

Now let me tell you in a little more detail of how I collected these samples. When I first came down to Chile in June I was working with another graduate student and three undergraduates (well, they’re really post-grads because all of the them had graduated from college that May). After a week or two of practicing our bleeding and handling skills, we set out 120 tomahawk traps at our first site and got down to business. Here’s how a typical trapping day went:

After arriving at our field site, we would set up a degu-processing station near our trapping area. Then, the five of us would each grab a bag of oats, spread out and start opening and baiting the traps. Once the traps were all open and baited, we would station ourselves around the trapping perimeter and begin monitoring the traps through our binoculars. Observing the degus could be boring and tedious- oftentimes we would go hours without catching a degu. The degus also liked to taunt us in various ways, usually by studiously avoiding the areas with traps. Some degus liked to enter the traps partway, gently rest their paw on the treadle, and then quickly run out of the trap. And occasionally, a few particular degus would sit by the traps for long periods of time, just staring back at us.

Degu processing station

Nevertheless, we did catch quite a few degus. When one of us saw a degu set off a trap, we would yell, “DEGU!” and then the closest graduate student (designated bleeder) and post-grad (designated handler) would run towards the trapped degu. The handler (using a gardening glove because the degus will bite) would get the degu out of the trap and hold it for the bleeder. The bleeder would use an electric razor to shave the degu’s leg and would then prick the saphenous vein (one of the main leg veins) with a needle. We first collected blood in a glass capillary tube for future cortisol analysis, and then we would switch over to an Eppendorf tube to collect blood for leptin and ghrelin analysis (these are two important hormones for energy regulation). After we collected the blood, the handler would hold a piece of cotton or gauze to the degu’s leg if it was still bleeding and then the degu would be taken to the processing center while the three other people continued to watch the traps.

Once at the processing center, the first thing we would do was ear-tag the degu so we could properly identify it (this is important because if the animal escaped during processing, then we could complete our measurements if we ever re-caught the animal). After ear-tagging the animal, we would then weigh the degu so we could figure out how much DEX and ACTH to inject. Then we would take a variety of measurements including ectoparasite levels (I covered this procedure in my last post), reproductive condition, glucose levels (we use the same monitor a diabetic might use), and anogenital distance (this is the distance from the top of the anus to the base of the penis or vaginal opening). By the time we were done taking all of these measurements, it was usually time to take the stress-induced blood sample and inject the degus with DEX. Then, we would stick a paper towel under the degu’s trap to collect any feces, cover the degu with a white sheet to keep off the sun, and head back to the trapping area to continue watching the traps.

After catching a few degus, the day would become a game of coordination between watching degus and taking further blood samples on the degus at the processing station. Because we had five people, we were usually able to keep the traps open the whole day. On the occasions when we caught multiple degus within a short period of time, we would have to close some traps for a while because there was no way we could watch all of the traps while processing the degus. This is one of the challenges of fieldwork; you often have long chunks of time where you’re essentially doing nothing, interrupted by brief periods of intense activity.

Fieldwork could sometimes be very frustrating, like when a degu would get caught in a trap and we didn’t notice. This mostly happened at the beginning of the field season- we eventually got better at preventing unnoticed captures by checking that all the traps were visible to at least one person before opening them, and also by tying a piece of orange flagging tape to the door of trap so we could easily tell from a distance whether the trap was open or closed. We also got better at watching the degus and recognizing the sound of a trap being triggered.

Other frustrations included when a degu would go into the trap, step on the treadle, but the trap would fail to shut. Some of the traps are better than others, and we oftentimes had to fiddle with the older traps to make then more sensitive. Sometimes we’d catch a degu but it’d escape from the trap while we were trying to get it out; it’s something that happens to everyone, no matter how long you’ve been working with the degus. And finally, the most frustrating thing about trapping degus is watching the birds eat all of the bait and set off the traps. Sometimes the birds would be so bad that we’d have to re-bait the traps every hour or so. Over the past few months, we’ve caught (in order of capture frequency) rufous-collared sparrows, common diuca-finches, long-tailed meadowlarks, band-tailed sierra-finches, Chilean mockingbirds, mustached turcas, mourning sierra-finches, white-throated tapaculos, eared doves, and shiny cowbirds. Here are some pictures of a few of these birds:

Rufous-collared sparrow 
My advisor, Dr. Michael Romero, holding a long-tailed meadowlark

Mustached turca

Common diuca-finch

White-throated tapaculo

Mourning sierra-finch

Chilean mockingbird

But even with the difficulties of trap-shy degus, unnoticed trappings, escaped animals, and hungry birds, we managed to get our first seasonal samples within two weeks (full stress series on 8 males and 14 females). Because we had a lot of time before gathering our next seasonal samples and preparing for my other project (examining the effects of poor maternal care on the pup stress response), we decided to do a side project to determine whether the stress response differs by habitat. We moved all of our traps up to a nearby field that had lots of boulders and began trapping up there. The boulder field, unexpectedly, was degu heaven, and we collected full stress series from 12 males and 8 females within just three days! Emboldened by our success, we decided to try trapping in an area with lots of trees and vegetation. This site proved to be more difficult, and it took a week to collect full stress series from 10 females and 5 males, after which we had to remove all of traps because it was time to start trapping at nearby national park. Which brings me to….

Parque Nacional Fray Jorge!

Fray Jorge is approximately 350km northwest of Santiago and is an interesting place because while the majority of the park is dry, dusty and covered with cactuses, there are also fragments of rain forest on top of some of the hills. The incoming fog from the ocean sustains these cloud forest fragments, which are more typically found in the southern part of Chile. Alas, we trapped the degus in the drier, scrubbier areas, here’s a good representative picture of our trapping habitat: 

Fray Jorge was a difficult place to trap because the degus rarely ventured out into the open, so we had to place most of the traps in and around the bushes and trap by ear instead of by sight. This usually worked fine, but on really windy days it was hard to hear the traps closing, so we ended up missing a few captures. The cactuses were also a real pain; by the end of the day we’d have tons of cactus spines embedded in the soles of our boots. But we persevered, and by the end of our time at Fray Jorge (about a week and a half) we managed to collect full stress series on 5 males and 13 females.

After we returned from Fray Jorge, we started prepping for my project examining the effects of poor maternal care on the pup stress response. We did some widespread trapping and radio collaring to help determine social groups (I went over these techniques in my last post), and then we started implanting the females with cortisol or placebo pellets after they gave birth.

I will start trapping and bleeding pups in a few days to determine if communal care helps buffer degu pups from negligent parenting. If this hypothesis is supported, then I expect to see high baseline and stress-induced CORT, plus poor negative feedback, from the pups belonging to social groups with cortisol-implanted mothers. You can read my first blog post for a fuller explanation of my experiment.

Buena suerte!


  1. ​I am very distressed about how cruel you are being to degus. Degus are very intelligent beings, and they are very sensitive to noise and movements. They are prey animals and thus are hyper-sensitive to sudden movements and noises as these may indicate predators. I have read your description of capturing and subsequent treatment of degus. It is horrible. Your procedures subject these beautiful, loving souls to terror and pain. And it does not end after you release them since they have collars around their necks and tags on their ears. What happens if these collars or tags get snagged when the degus are in their burrows? What if they get infected? Degus groom each other, so how do you think their grooming is affected by these collars and tags? Do you remove the collars and tags after the study is done? And the babies should not be separated from their mother as they need to be fed and nurtured in order to grow up as healthy and happy degus. Please respond by posting a comment on my website Thank you.

  2. ​​Hi Vachon,

    Thank you for bringing up some of these issues, I think it's important that scientific researchers explain how they do all ​that ​they can to ensure the health and safety of their study animals. First of all, I should mention that before any scientist works with a vertebrate animal, they must first write up a protocol that is approved by their university or organization's IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee). The committee is composed of researchers, veterinarians, and at least one person outside the university. The protocol must prove that the research cannot be carried out using an animal of lower status (ex: an insect instead of a mammal), that the methods cause the least amount of pain and distress to the animals, and that the smallest possbile number of animals are used to obtain significant results. I wrote up an IACUC protocol for my project which was approved for this research.​ For more info on IACUC and the AAALAC "Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Care" please check out this site:​

    In response to your specific questions, I do agree that capture is stressful for degus. However, I study the biology of stress, and therefore I need to the animal to be stressed so I can measure their stress response via cortisol levels. For my long-term study, I should also mention that degus eventually acclimate to capture and do not struggle or show signs of distress. As for ear tags, this is a very common way that researchers have marked and observed mammal populations over the last several decades. Because the tissue of the ear is very thin, infections are very rare, and I have never ​seen or heard of​ a degu with this problem. ​​As for the radiocollars, we do remove these after the study, and I haven't seen a difference in skin or fur quality between those with and without radiocollars. As for separating mothers from the pups, we try to keep separation time at a minimal. However, separation of a few hours generally isn't harmful because 1) degus are semi-precocial mammals, so the pups can thermoregulate fairly well on their own and 2) degus practice communal care, so other group members will care for the pups during the mothers absence.

    I also think it's important to remember that the life of a wild degu is not an easy one- most animals do not survive the first few months of life, and those that reach adulthood typically only live one year. Degus also face seasonal periods of low food availability, and because I feed degus lots of oats during my field research, I might argue that I'm improving their quality of life and potentially increasing their lifespan. I agree that by capturing and handling these animals I am causing them some distress, but in the end I'm doing research that will help us better understand how to conserve and protect degu populations. Other stress physiology studies have shown us that habitat fragmentation has detrimental effects on salamander populations, and that snowmobile activity increases the stress of spotted owls. One study on oil-covered Galapagos marine iguanas was used as a key point in a court case against an oil company. In addition to helping the conservation of degus, stress physiology research also has implications for human health. Stress is a major contributor to human disease, and by better understanding how wild, free-living animals cope with stressors, we may gain a better idea​ of how​ to help humans successfully deal and manage stress, too.

  3. comment continued...

    I love degus​ because they're smart, intelligent, beautiful animals,​ and I do all I can to keep them as healthy as possible. If you have more questions about how wild animals are used in scientific research, I suggest you check out the "Guidelines of the American Society of Mammalogists for the Use of Wild Animals in Research"

    Thank you for your response, and I would be willing to answer anymore questions you have!

  4. Hi Carolyn,

    Thank you for your response.

    Some of the people with whom I correspond about degus appreciate your research.

    I am glad that you have provided such a detailed, thoughtful reply.

    There has been a lot of work about the care of degus by a number of people around the world. Some of the most advanced sites are:

    My website shows my degus and their enclosure which is a room for themselves: which you have obviously visited. My checklist also on that website has received favorable feedback from beginner degu-keepers.

    You might find that these forums provide you with some additional material that may assist your research. In particular, the Species Appropriate and Balanced Diet that is set out on the degus-international website, particularly at

    We all care about the health and happiness of degus. Perhaps we can all work together to improve the lives of degus both in captivity and in the wild.

    Indeed, I dream of one day going to Chile to observe degus naturally in the wild.

    Have a wonderful day.

    Yours truly,



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