By Stephanie Hing. Hormones, neurochemical signaling substances, are in charge of everything we do. From the time you got up in this morning to when your head hits the pillow tonight (and as you sleep), hormones will be working hard to keep you alive. They coordinate all the systems in our bodies from digesting food to fighting off infection. In short, hormones make sure we can perform different tasks under different conditions, survive, grow, live and reproduce. Believe it or not, hormones are also really useful in wildlife conservation.
Let’s look at how hormones don’t just keep us alive but can also help save endangered species. Pretend for a moment that you’re in charge of the world and among many other issues, you’re faced with problems like these:
- A species has gone extinct in the wild. There are some of these animals surviving in zoos but they’re not breeding. To save the species from vanishing forever, you need to figure out why they’re not breeding.
- A big development is being built. The area is the last remaining home of an endangered species but the developer wants them to be relocated. To save the species, you need to report to the government about the impact of relocation.
- A unique and important species is dying out. They seem to be getting sick and weak and are all being eaten by feral predators. To stop their extinction, you need to investigate why they’re dying out at such a dramatic rate.
What are you going to do to save these species and the ecosystems which rely on them?
Hormones can help you. Studies demonstrate how reproductive hormones have aided captive breeding programs. Investigating stress hormones can help us understand animals’ behavioural and physiological response to challenges (like relocation). In addition, hormones may shed light on the underlying reasons why species are declining so that we can better protect them for the future (and this forms the basis of my PhD).
This is a very exciting space to be working in. Examining the fundamental substances allowing organisms to function is like looking under the bonnet at parts of the engine of life. Conservation endocrinology (the study of hormones) is also exciting because it can be applied to so many different problems. To illustrate that this information can feed directly into management and policy decisions about captive and wild animals, all the scenarios above are based on real cases. There are many applications yet to be explored.