Patterns of Stress Responses Shift During Seasonal Life-History Transitions: An Analysis Comparing Baseline, Maximal and Integrated Corticosterone in Female Red-Sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis)

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General and Comparative Endocrinology

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Glucocorticoids often rise and fall with a variety of external and internal cues and frequently vary among life-history stages. This suggests that changing glucocorticoids may coordinate life-history transitions. To explore this hypothesis, we asked if the time-course of stress-induced glucocorticoid levels differ between two life-history transitions (i.e., spring and fall migration) in female red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis). We collected non-migratory females from a communal den and migratory females from a road along the migration route and treated them with 4 h of capture stress; plasma corticosterone was measured before, during and after capture stress. During the spring, den-collected females exhibited a stress-induced peak in corticosterone at an earlier sampling time than migrating, road-collected females. Because the pattern of corticosterone responses varied with migratory state, negative feedback on and/or sensitivity of the hypothalamus-pituitaryadrenal (HPA) axis may be linked to spring migration. During the fall, capture stress elicited an increase in corticosterone in den-collected females but not in migrating, road-collected females. Baseline corticosterone was higher and both maximal and integrated corticosterone responses were lower during the fall compared to spring, indicating that stress responses are smaller when baseline corticosterone is elevated, perhaps due to a “ceiling effect”. These data suggest that HPA axis regulation changes during seasonal migration, possibly via altering negative feedback, HPA axis sensitivity, or some other mechanism. This study supports the hypothesis that glucocorticoids coordinate life-history events and suggests that examining a suite of stress response characteristics is most informative for understanding the function of HPA modulation.



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