Deborah I. Lutterschmidt

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Biology



Physical Description

1 online resource (xi, 169 pages)




Resource availability follows seasonal cycles in environmental conditions. To align physiology and behavior with prevailing environmental conditions, seasonal animals integrate cues from the environment with their internal state. One of the systems animals use to integrate those cues is the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and its primary effector, glucocorticoid hormones. The HPA axis has wide-ranging effects on physiology and behavior and, in the context of a glucocorticoid stress response, is known to mediate tradeoffs between immediate survival and future fitness. The HPA axis also plays an important role in facilitating predictable life-history events. Variation in HPA axis activity has been reported in all vertebrates, often coordinating seasonal reproduction and possibly also transitions between life-history stages. My dissertation research used red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) to examine the role of the HPA axis in regulating seasonal life-history transitions, especially in females

In Chapter 2, I hypothesized that seasonal plasticity in stress responses is regulated, in part, by changes in the responsiveness of the adrenal glands to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). I found that glucocorticoid responses to ACTH challenge were smaller in males than in females during the spring, suggesting that reports of reduced stress responsiveness in males may reflect lower adrenal responsiveness to ACTH. The sex difference in mating season duration and consequently also in the timing of migration led me to hypothesize that sex differences in HPA axis activity could explain sex differences in the timing of migration. Furthermore, adrenal responsiveness to ACTH also varied seasonally in males, but not females, suggesting that female stress responses, which have not been studied, may not vary seasonally.

In Chapter 3, I investigated potential seasonal variation in female stress responses, which have not previously been examined. In males, baseline glucocorticoids decrease over the course of the mating season resulting in significantly lower baseline levels in males that have begun to migrate. I hypothesized that a change in HPA axis activity occurs during spring and fall migration. Peak stress-induced glucocorticoid concentration occurred at an earlier sampling time in females during the spring compared to the fall. Peak stress-induced glucocorticoid concentrations also occurred at a later sampling time in migrating females than in pre-migratory females during the spring, suggesting that negative feedback regulation of the HPA axis changes as soon as females begin to migrate during the spring.

Female red-sided garter snakes are biennial breeders that give birth approximately every other year implying that a female's recent reproductive history can influence whether or not she will reproduce in a given year. Body condition can be used as a proxy for recent reproductive history and can be related to baseline and stress-induced glucocorticoid concentrations. In Chapter 4, I hypothesized that hormonal and behavioral stress responses vary with body condition. Baseline glucocorticoids did not vary with body condition, but females in low body condition showed a significantly larger increase in plasma glucocorticoids in response to capture stress. Body condition, but not capture stress, influenced latency to copulate, suggesting that females are resistant to the behavioral effects of capture stress during the spring mating season. Only females in low body condition increased latency to copulate in response to injection of a physiological (15 µg) dose of exogenous CORT, while all females responded to a pharmacological (60 µg) dose, indicating that behavioral responses to exogenous glucocorticoids vary with female body condition. These data suggest that variation in body condition may be associated with differences in HPA axis sensitivity and/or glucocorticoid receptor (GR) density in the brain.

I directly tested if there is a relationship among body condition, reproductive history and HPA axis activity in Chapter 5. I found that glucocorticoid stress responses and mating behavior did not vary with body condition, nor was body condition related to brain GR or reproductive condition (parturient vs post-parturient females). Only unreceptive females showed a significant stress-induced increase in glucocorticoids, suggesting that reduced stress responsiveness is associated with receptivity. Parturient females mated faster (were more proceptive) than post-parturient females. These data suggest that HPA axis activity influences reproductive "decisions" by modulating receptivity, while proceptivity is related primarily to recent reproductive history.

Together, these chapters help characterize how HPA axis activity varies with season, sex, reproductive history and migration status. By systematically probing the HPA axis in a single, tractable system, I have gained insight into how changes in the HPA axis support and modulate transitions between life-history stages. These results highlight the HPA axis' important function in mediating the critical trade-offs all animals must navigate to be successful in a changing world.

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