Glucocorticoid stress hormones and the effect of predation risk on elk reproduction

Scott Creel, John A. Winnie, David Christianson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

192 Scopus citations


Predators affect prey demography through direct predation and through the costs of antipredator behavioral responses, or risk effects. Experiments have shown that risk effects can comprise a substantial proportion of a predator's total effect on prey dynamics, but we know little about their strength in wild populations, or the physiological mechanisms that mediate them. When wolves are present, elk alter their grouping patterns, vigilance, foraging behavior, habitat selection, and diet. These responses are associated with decreased progesterone levels, decreased calf production, and reduced population size [Creel S, Christianson D, Liley S, Winnie JA (2007) Science 315:960]. Two general mechanisms for the effect of predation risk on reproduction have been proposed: the predation stress hypothesis and the predator-sensitive-food hypothesis. Here, we used enzyme immunoassay to measure fecal glucocorticoid metabolite concentrations for 1,205 samples collected from 4 elk populations over 4 winters to test the hypothesis that the effect of predation risk on elk reproduction is mediated by chronic stress. Across populations and years, fecal glucocorticoid concentrations were not related to predator-prey ratios, progesterone concentrations or calf-cow ratios. Overall, the effect of wolf presence on elk reproduction is better explained by changes in foraging patterns that carry nutritional costs than by changes in glucocorticoid concentrations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12388-12393
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number30
StatePublished - Jul 28 2009


  • Antipredator behavior
  • Nonconsumptive effects
  • Risk effect
  • Wolf

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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