Egg production and endocrine profiles of female whooping cranes (Grus americana) maintained ex situ are improved in naturalized enclosures

Theriogenology Wild
By: , and 



Whooping cranes (Grus americana) are naturally seasonal breeders and rely on wetland habitats throughout the annual cycle. However, captive cranes are commonly housed in dry outdoor pens, which may lack key environmental stimuli that in turn compromise reproduction. Our study sought to first, assess seasonal patterns of reproductive hormones in successful versus non-successful bird pairs and second, determine endocrine responses to alterations in enclosure environments. Fecal samples were collected from eight crane pairs year-round for 3 consecutive years, once a week during non-breeding season and three times a week during the breeding season. During Year 1, all pairs were housed in traditional dry pens, whereas during January of Year 2 all pairs were moved to either new dry pens (control, n = 4) or ponded pens (wetland, n = 4) and remained in the same pen until the end of the study. Fecal samples were assessed for gonadal (year-round) and adrenal (breeding season only) hormones. Estrogen and progestagen metabolite concentrations were low during non-breeding season in all females. However, as birds transition into a breeding season, gonadal hormone concentrations significantly increased (p < 0.001) in laying females but not in non-laying individuals. Androgen metabolite concentrations during breeding seasons were higher (p < 0.001) in males paired with non-laying females, with no variations observed during non-breeding months and within birds of the same reproductive output. We observed significant effect of enclosure environment on ovarian function of female whooping cranes. Specifically, mean estrogen metabolite concentrations increased after birds were moved from dry pen to wetland enclosures (Year 1: 349.1 ± 83.4 ng/g feces; Year 2: 382.7 ± 82.9 ng/g feces; Year 3: 556.5 ± 85.4 ng/g feces, p = 0.008 and 0.019 respectively,), whereas those of the control females remained constant. Further, estrogen concentration assessed during breeding season of Year 3 in females housed in wetland pens was higher than birds housed in a dry pen (556.5 ± 85.4 vs 311.7 ± 85.12 ng/g feces; p = 0.019). The number of eggs laid increased in three of the four pairs housed in the wetland pens, while there was no change in egg production in control birds (9 vs. 2 combined number of eggs produced by all pairs in each respective group in Year 3). Finally, moving birds to an enclosure that mimic natural environment did not impact androgen or glucocorticoid excretion. The findings demonstrate that differences in gonadal hormone production between laying and non-laying whooping crane females exist primarily during the breeding season, and that a more natural environment can have a positive influence on ovarian function in female whooping cranes.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Egg production and endocrine profiles of female whooping cranes (Grus americana) maintained ex situ are improved in naturalized enclosures
Series title Theriogenology Wild
DOI 10.1016/j.therwi.2023.100034
Volume 2
Year Published 2023
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Eastern Ecological Science Center
Description 100034, 9 p.
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