Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Measuring adrenal and reproductive hormones in hair from southern Beaufort Sea polar bears (Ursus maritimus)

May 6, 2021

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) use sea ice to access marine mammal prey. In Alaska’s Southern Beaufort Sea, the declining availability of sea ice habitat in summer and fall has reduced opportunities for polar bears to routinely hunt on the ice for seals, their primary prey. This reduced access to prey may result in physiological stress with subsequent potential consequences to reproductive function (physiological changes that accompany reproduction), which can be measured via reproductive hormones. Hormone concentrations in hair can be used as a minimally invasive alternative to serum concentrations, which must come from animal captures. Hair samples also provide a long-term average measurement of hormone concentrations that is not influenced by short-term fluctuations like that of serum. The aim of this study was (1) to determine if a radioimmunoassay could be used to measure adrenal and reproductive hormones in polar bear hair, and (2) to determine what the relationship is between these hormones and other reproductive, condition, and demographic parameters of polar bears. We successfully validated this method for cortisol, progesterone, estradiol, and testosterone through the analysis of hair and serum of 141 free-ranging polar bears. We found that while hair cannot be used to estimate serum hormone concentrations during the breeding season, hormone concentrations in hair can be used to measure reproductive function in polar bears. Further, our findings support trends in previous studies measuring hormone concentrations in serum. We found that adrenal and some reproductive hormones were positively correlated in hair samples of females. Associations between hormone concentrations in hair and serum did not vary relative to reproductive status of adult females. Serum testosterone increased throughout the breeding season for adult males and was significantly associated with body mass index (BMI). Our research supports the use of hair as a measure of reproductive function in polar bears and allows us to monitor the future effects of climate change on polar bear physiology.

Related Content