Variation in scale cortisol concentrations of a wild freshwater fish: Habitat quality or seasonal influences?

A. Carbajal, O. Tallo-Parra, L. Monclús, D. Vinyoles, M. Solé, S. Lacorte, M. Lopez-Bejar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearch

7 Citations (Scopus)


© 2019 Elsevier Inc. A significant body of literature suggests that aquatic pollutants can interfere with the physiological function of the fish hypothalamic-pituitary-interrenal (HPI) axis, and eventually impair the ability to cope with subsequent stressors. For this reason, development of accurate techniques to assess fish stress responses have become of growing interest. Fish scales have been recently recognized as a biomaterial that accumulates cortisol, hence it can be potentially used to assess chronic stress in laboratory conditions. We, therefore, aimed to evaluate the applicability of this novel method for cortisol assessment in fish within their natural environment. Catalan chub (Squalius laietanus) were sampled from two sites; a highly polluted and a less polluted (reference) site, in order to examine if habitat quality could potentially influence the cortisol deposition in scales. We also evaluated the seasonal variation in scale cortisol levels by sampling fish at three different time points during spring-summer 2014. In each sampling, blood was collected to complement the information provided by the scales. Our results demonstrated that blood and scale cortisol levels from individuals inhabiting the reference site were significantly correlated, therefore increasing the applicability of the method as a sensitive-individual measure of fish HPI axis activity, at least in non-polluted habitats. Since different environmental conditions could potentially alter the usefulness of the technique, results highlight that further validation is required to better interpret hormone fluctuations in fish scales. Scale cortisol concentrations were unaffected by habitat quality although fish from the polluted environment presented lower circulating cortisol levels. We detected a seasonal increase in scale cortisol values concurring with an energetically costly period for the species, supporting the idea that the analysis of cortisol in scales reveals changes in the HPI axis activity. Taken together, the present study suggests that cortisol levels in scales are more likely to be influenced by mid-term, intense energetically demanding periods rather than by long-term stressors. Measurement of cortisol in fish scales can open the possibility to study novel spatio-temporal contexts of interest, yet further research is required to better understand its biological relevance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-50
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2019


  • Bioindicator
  • Habitat quality
  • Pollution
  • Scales cortisol
  • Seasonality
  • Stress


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