Santymire, R. M., Young, M., Lenihan, E. et al. 2022. Preliminary investigation into developing the use of swabs for skin cortisol analysis for the ocean sunfish (Mola mola). Animals 12(20), 2868.

The ocean sunfish (mola; Mola mola) is the heaviest bony fish in the world. This slow-moving fish often is injured by fishing boats that use drift gillnets attributing to its listing as Vulnerable by the IUCN. The Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, CA, USA) has a program that brings in smaller molas from the ocean and acclimates them for an exhibit. When they grow too large for the million-gallon Open Seas exhibit, they are returned to Monterey Bay through a “reverse” acclimatization. Our overall goal was to use skin swabs to evaluate mola stress physiology to better understand the effects of this program. Our objectives were to validate this non-invasive method by taking opportunistic swabs throughout acclimatization and during stressful events. We swabbed each individual (n = 12) in three different body locations. Swabs were analyzed using a cortisol enzyme immunoassay. We averaged the three swabs and examined the absolute change of cortisol from the first taken upon handling to during treatments and the different acclimation stages. We considered elevated cortisol concentrations to be ≥1.5-fold higher than the first sample. Overall, mean (±SEM) cortisol varied among individuals (564.2 ± 191.5 pg/mL swab (range, 18.3–7012.0 pg/mL swab). The majority (four of six) of molas swabbed within the first week or month had elevated skin cortisol compared to their first sample. All seven molas that were being treated for an injury or illness had elevated skin cortisol (range, 1.7- to 127.6-fold higher) compared to their post-acclimation sample. This is the first step in validating the use of non-invasive skin swabs for glucocorticoid analysis in the mola. Further biochemical analysis is needed to determine the specific steroids that are being measured.

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