Research on live vertebrates is regulated by ethics committees, who prohibit 'excessively stressful' procedures. That judgment is based on intuition - a notoriously unreliable criterion when dealing with animals phylogenetically distant from humans. To objectively evaluate the stress imposed by research practices, we measured plasma corticosterone levels in lizards (Eulamprus heatwolei Wells & Wellington, Scincidae). Some procedures (handling and measuring, toe-clipping for identification, exposure to predator scent) did not induce significant increases in corticosterone levels, suggesting that these stimuli generated relatively little stress. However, other stimuli (testing locomotor speed, microchip implantation, blood sampling, an unfamiliar enclosure, tail autotomy, exposure to a heterospecific lizard) were more stressful, with corticosterone levels increasing only transiently in some treatments (<2 h for tail autotomy), but persisting much longer in others (14 days for microchip implantation). Overall, our data suggest that the levels of stress induced by routine laboratory procedures are no greater than those often experienced by lizards in nature; but that intuition provides a poor basis for evaluating the levels of stress induced by research. For example, toe-clipping is often criticized and sometimes banned; but our data suggest that this method is actually less stressful than the technique frequently recommended to replace it on ethical grounds (microchip implantation). Toe-clipping also was less stressful than superficially trivial manipulations such as housing the animal in an unfamiliar enclosure. More generally, we urge researchers to seek objective information on the effects of their activities on research subjects, rather than relying upon subjectivity and anthropomorphism in making these evaluations.
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- Eulamprus heatwolei