Thyroid Hormone Concentrations in Female Baboons: Metabolic Consequences of Living in a Highly Seasonal Environment


How female mammals adapt metabolically in response to environmental variation remains understudied in the wild, because direct measures of metabolic activity are difficult to obtain in wild populations. However, recent advances in the non-invasive measurement of fecal thyroid hormones, triiodothyronine (T3), an important regulator of metabolism, provide an opportunity to understand how female baboons living in the harsh Amboseli ecosystem in southern Kenya adapt to environmental variability and escape strict reproductive seasonality. Specifically, we assessed how a female’s activity budget, diet, and concentrations of fecal T3 metabolites (mT3) changed over the course of the year and between years. We then tested which of several environmental variables (season, rainfall, and temperature) and behavioral variables (female activity budget and diet) best predicted mT3 concentrations. Finally, we determined if two important reproductive events – onset of ovarian cycling and conception of an offspring – were preceded by changes in female mT3 concentrations. We found female baboons’ mT3 concentrations varied markedly across the year and between years as a function of environmental conditions. Further, changes in a female’s behavior and diet only partially mediated the metabolic response to the environment. Finally, mT3 concentrations increased in the weeks prior to menarche and cycling resumption, regardless of the month or season in which cycling started. This pattern indicates that metabolic activation may be an indicator of reproductive readiness in female baboons as their energy balance is restored.

Hormones and Behavior