Postprint version. Published in General and Comparative Endocrinology, Volume 166, Issue 3, May 1, 2010, pages 590-599. Copyright © 2010 Elsevier. The definitive version is available at http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2010.01.026.
We describe the reproductive cycle of Northern Pacific rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) by quantifying steroid hormone concentrations and observing reproductive behaviors in free-ranging individuals. Additionally, we examined reproductive tissues from museum specimens. Plasma steroid hormone concentrations were quantified for both male and female snakes throughout the active season (March–October). We measured testosterone (T), 5α-dihydrotestosterone (DHT), and corticosterone (B) concentrations in both sexes and 17β-estradiol (E2) and progesterone (P) in females only. We observed reproductive behaviors (e.g., consortship, courtship, and copulation) in the field and measured testis and follicle size in male and female snakes from museum collections to relate steroid hormone concentrations to the timing of reproductive events. Our study revealed that C. oreganus in central California exhibits a bimodal pattern of breeding, with most mating behavior occurring in the spring and some incidences of mating behavior observed in late summer/fall. Each breeding period corresponded with elevated androgen (T or DHT) levels in males. Testes were regressed in the spring when the majority of reproductive behavior was observed in this population, and they reached peak volume in August and September during spermatogenesis. Although we did not detect seasonal variation in female hormone concentrations, some females had high E2 in the spring and fall, coincident with mating and with increased follicle size (indicating vitellogenesis) in museum specimens. Females with high E2 concentrations also had high T and DHT concentrations. Corticosterone concentrations in males and females were not related either to time of year or to concentrations of any other hormones quantified. Progesterone concentrations in females also did not vary seasonally, but this likely reflected sampling bias as females tended to be underground, and thus unobtainable, in summer months when P would be expected to be elevated during gestation. In females, P was positively correlated with T and DHT, and E2 was positively correlated with T.