The effects of maternal corticosterone levels on offspring behavior in fast- and slow-growth garter snakes (Thamnophis elegans) Academic Article uri icon


  • During embryonic development, viviparous offspring are exposed to maternally circulating hormones. Maternal stress increases offspring exposure to corticosterone and this hormonal exposure has the potential to influence developmental, morphological and behavioral traits of the resulting offspring. We treated pregnant female garter snakes (Thamnophis elegans) with low levels of corticosterone after determining both natural corticosterone levels in the field and pre-treatment levels upon arrival in the lab. Additional measurements of plasma corticosterone were taken at days 1, 5, and 10 during the 10-day exposure, which occurred during the last third of gestation (of 4-month gestation). These pregnant snakes were from replicate populations of fast- and slow-growth ecotypes occurring in Northern California, with concomitant short and long lifespans. Field corticosterone levels of pregnant females of the slow-growth ecotype were an order of magnitude higher than fast-growth dams. In the laboratory, corticosterone levels increased over the 10 days of corticosterone manipulation for animals of both ecotypes, and reached similar plateaus for both control and treated dams. Despite similar plasma corticosterone levels in treated and control mothers, corticosterone-treated dams produced more stillborn offspring and exhibited higher total reproductive failure than control dams. At one month of age, offspring from fast-growth females had higher plasma corticosterone levels than offspring from slow-growth females, which is opposite the maternal pattern. Offspring from corticosterone-treated mothers, although unaffected in their slither speed, exhibited changes in escape behaviors and morphology that were dependent upon maternal ecotype. Offspring from corticosterone-treated fast-growth females exhibited less anti-predator reversal behavior; offspring from corticosterone-treated slow-growth females exhibited less anti-predator tail lashing behavior.

publication date

  • January 2009