Two adult bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) were individually housed in aboveground pools over a 10-day period and exposed to decreasing water temperatures to determine whether cold stress activated the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. To serve as controls, two additional adult dolphins were similarly housed for the same duration but at ambient water temperatures (16.8–19.6°C). Across all subjects, water temperatures ranged from 4.2 to 19.6°C. Voluntary blood draws were made from each dolphin every 2–3 days, and serum was analyzed via radioimmunoassay for cortisol and aldosterone. Dolphins exposed to cold water showed an increase in serum cortisol and aldosterone as temperature declined; at the coldest water exposure, cortisol was more than three times and aldosterone more than two times the levels measured at ambient temperature. Elevations occurred before the water temperature declined below the individual animal's lower critical temperature, the point at which the metabolic rate increases to compensate for the loss of body heat. Variations in corticosteroids were unrelated to the 10-day isolation period, suggesting that the response was related to the cold stress and not impacted by the isolation. Elevations in cortisol and aldosterone were lower than those observed in force captured and stranded dolphins. Although potentially related to the general adaptive stress response, elevations in cortisol and aldosterone may have other adaptive functions related to mitigating impacts resulting from cold environmental temperatures.
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