Corticosterone in feathers : inter- and intraindividual variation in pullets and the importance of the feather type
Measuring corticosterone concentrations in feathers of poultry may be suitable to determine birds' exposure to stress. It is thinkable, that in laying hens such information could be helpful as an animal welfare indicator to evaluate adverse husbandry conditions and to predict the risk of developing behavioral disorders, such as feather pecking and cannibalism. Yet, there are some fundamental issues which remain unclear. Therefore, the objective of the current pilot study was to examine the inter- and intraindividual variation of pullets at the end of the rearing period, when most of the feathers are fully grown and animals are reaching sexual maturity. Flight feathers from both wings (n = 4), the tail (n = 2 - 3), and body feathers (n = 1 pool of 3 - 5 feathers) were taken from pullets (n = 10), genetics Lohmann Brown, at an age of 19 weeks who were reared in the same flock (N = 728). Corticosterone analysis was performed applying a validated protocol for laying hens. Results indicate not only high intraindividual, but also high interindividual variation. Mean over all samples was 75.2 pg/mg (± 38.58 pg/mg, n = 76), showing higher intraindividual variation (between feather types; SD: 23.75 pg/mg - 49.38 pg/mg; n = 10 pullets) than interindividual variation (within feather types; SD: 11.91 pg/mg - 49.55 pg/mg; n = 6 feather types). The variation between different feather types within one bird was higher than the variation within one feather type between different birds, indicating that birds a) may respond differently when exposed to stressors and b) corticosterone measurements should be done with the same feather type.