Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation


Chronobiology of garter snakes : environmental and hormonal mechanisms mediating hibernation and reproduction Public Deposited

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  • Most vertebrates exhibit seasonality in many life history traits. Such seasonal rhythms are temporally organized via the transduction of environmental cues (e.g., photoperiod, temperature) into appropriate endocrine signals. However, among ectothermic vertebrates that undergo continuous winter dormancy, temperature is the only environmental cue available for synchronizing seasonal rhythms. Most intriguing is that in species where reproduction occurs immediately following spring emergence, the associated changes in neurophysiology and behavior that accompany reproduction likely occur during winter dormancy. The purpose of this dissertation research was to explore the mechanisms by which temperature cues affect the chronobiology and seasonal reproduction of red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis). Because of their roles in circadian organization and energy balance, melatonin and corticosterone are likely hormonal components of these time-keeping systems. I first characterized the interactions between melatonin and corticosterone to better understand the hormonal mechanisms facilitating temperature-induced reproduction. Melatonin and corticosterone additively inhibit reproductive behavior during the spring mating season. Experimental manipulations with a serotonin receptor antagonist suggest the mechanism underlying these effects involves a serotonin-regulated system. Although melatonin does not influence corticosterone responses to capture stress, capture stress significantly increases melatonin concentrations. To investigate the functional significance of these interactions in regulating temperature-induced reproduction, I measured body temperatures of snakes as well as circadian melatonin and corticosterone cycles during winter dormancy and spring emergence using a combination of field and laboratory experiments. Surprisingly, an increase in body temperature is not necessary for emergence from winter dormancy. Rather, critically low temperatures may serve as a zeitgeber entraining an endogenous circannual cycle that regulates emergence. Decreased environmental temperatures, in the absence of changing photoperiod cues, modulate circadian melatonin and corticosterone rhythms during hibernation. Such temperature-induced changes in hormone rhythms may facilitate seasonal reproductive behavior following spring emergence. Furthermore, a phase-shift in corticosterone rhythms during the mating season may regulate the seasonal transition between reproductive and non-reproductive states in red-sided garter snakes. Such studies investigating the environmental and hormonal mechanisms underlying time-keeping systems may provide valuable insight into the potential impact of environmental perturbations (e.g., climate change) on seasonal rhythms in physiology and behavior.
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