Physiological correlates of reproductive decisions: Relationships among body condition, reproductive status, and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis in a reptile

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When opportunities to feed and reproduce are limited, females are often unable to recover sufficient energy stores to reproduce in consecutive years. Body condition has been used as a proxy for recent reproductive history in such species. We previously found that glucocorticoid responses to capture stress vary with body condition in female red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis), a species with limited seasonal breeding opportunities. Because variation in glucocorticoid receptor (GR) protein in the brain could explain these differences, we first assessed GR protein content in females in different body conditions. To investigate if body condition during the spring mating season accurately reflects recent reproductive history, we measured glucocorticoid responses to stress in females with different body conditions, assessed their mating behavior and brought mated females to our lab to determine which females would give birth during the summer (i.e., were parturient). Female red-sided garter snakes reproduce biennially, and therefore mated females that did not give birth were deemed non-parturient. In this study, 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 non-parturient). 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 non-parturient females. These data suggest that HPA axis activity modulates receptivity, while proceptivity is related primarily to reproductive condition.HIGHLIGHTSWe asked if body condition, HPA activity, and reproductive outcome are related.Neither plasma glucocorticoids nor brain GR varied with female body condition.Stress responses varied with female receptivity, but not reproductive status.Proceptivity was highest in parturient snakes, but was unrelated to body condition.Sensitivity of the HPA axis may influence female reproductive decisions.

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