Can tail hair inform us about an animal's history? Recreating a physiological diary of migrating Serengeti wildebeest through time

Issued: Sun, 10 Aug 2014 19:35:00 BST

Animals experience many constraints through their life such as encountering predators, finding food, or losing habitats. While conservation aims to protect animals from humans, we know very little about the animals’ welfare as they contend with these constraints.

This project aims to recreate the physiological profile of animals as they move between patches based on natural markers in their tail hair. As hair grows, it continuously incorporates metabolites such as hormones and proteins into the keratin of each follicle, leaving a diary of the animal through time. We propose to read this diary for female wildebeest in the Serengeti using isotope and hormone assays to understand:

(a) where the animal has been (hydrogen and oxygen isotopes relate to different water sources);

(b) how close it is to starvation (nitrogen isotopes estimate the metabolism of fat stores);

(c) when it was pregnant (progesterone); and

(d) how stressed the animal was at each phase of the migration (cortisol).

This novel combination of physiological and landscape data (about food, predation, and poaching) could be applied to other ecosystems to inform us about the interplay between conservation and welfare.

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