Salmon declines could have long-term effects on grizzly bear health, conclude authors of a study published today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The researchers examined stress and reproductive hormones of salmon-eating grizzly bears from coastal British Columbia. Their results, obtained from analysis of tiny tufts of hair, revealed higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in coastal bears that consumed less salmon.
Physiological indicators of social and nutritional stress can provide insight into the responses of species to changes in food availability. In coastal British Columbia, Canada, grizzly bears evolved with spawning salmon as an abundant but spatially and temporally constrained food source. Recent and dramatic declines in salmon might have negative consequences on bear health and ultimately fitness. To examine broadly the chronic endocrine effects of a salmon niche, we compared cortisol, progesterone, and testosterone levels in hair from salmon-eating bears from coastal BC (n = 75) with the levels in a reference population from interior BC lacking access to salmon (n = 42). As predicted, testosterone was higher in coastal bears of both sexes relative to interior bears, possibly reflecting higher social density on the coast mediated by salmon availability. We also investigated associations between the amount of salmon individual bears consumed (as measured by stable isotope analysis) and cortisol and testosterone in hair. Also as predicted, cortisol decreased with increasing dietary salmon and was higher after a year of low dietary salmon than after a year of high dietary salmon. These findings at two spatial scales suggest that coastal bears might experience nutritional or social stress in response to on-going salmon declines, providing novel insights into the effects of resource availability on fitness-related physiology.