Diurnal variation in serum concentrations of cortisol in captive African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants


Cortisol is involved in a broad range of physiological processes and enables animals to adapt to new situations and challenges. Diurnal fluctuations in circulating cortisol concentrations in elephants have been demonstrated based on samples from urine and saliva. The aims of this study were to demonstrate diurnal cortisol fluctuations based on blood samples and compare concentrations between seasons, species, and changes in reproductive hormone concentrations. Nine African (Loxodonta africana) and three Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants at two facilities in the United States were included in this study. Blood samples were collected every 2–3 h at one location and every 1–6 h at another. Peak serum concentrations of cortisol averaged 28 ng/ml for both African and Asian elephants, and diurnal cycles included a fivefold decrease from morning peak to evening nadir concentrations. Diurnal cortisol profiles varied uniquely among individual elephants. During the winter, nadir concentrations of cortisol were slightly higher, and the timing of peak concentrations was less predictable. There was no correlation between diurnal serum concentrations of progesterone and cortisol; however, a significant correlation (p =.02) was identified between serum concentrations of testosterone and cortisol when a time lag of ~2–3 h was considered. The physiological significance of the positive correlations between diurnal serum concentrations of cortisol and testosterone in male elephants remains to be determined. If cortisol concentrations are being used to evaluate elephant health or welfare, samples should be obtained at the same time each day to minimize variation due to diurnal fluctuations, and ideally seasonal variations and individuality in diurnal profiles should also be considered.


Animal Science

Document Type





cyclical, endocrine relationships, hormones

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Journal Title

Zoo Biology