Date of Award

6-2016

Degree Name

MS in Biological Sciences

Department

Biological Sciences

Advisor

Emily Taylor

Abstract

Stress is a physiological state induced by disturbance or adverse environmental conditions and is modulated by the glucocorticoid hormone corticosterone (CORT) in reptiles. Stressors can have various impacts on vertebrate trait expression and may affect survival or reproduction. Little is known about the effects of chronically elevated CORT in free-ranging reptiles, or the effect of disturbance stress on venom composition in captive snakes.

In chapter 1, we investigated the effects of researcher induced disturbance on CORT levels and venom composition in a group of captive Northern Pacific rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus). Venom protein concentration and plasma CORT levels were compared before and after two weeks of unpredictable bouts of cage vibration, and to a non-vibrated control group. CORT levels were also assessed one week into vibration treatment. We found no effect of vibration treatment on CORT levels or on venom composition, and within-snake relative protein abundance was highly repeatable, although some variation was observed. We found a strong correlation between changes in relative abundance of several proteins and CORT. These results led us to believe that while differential forms of researcher-induced disturbance may not affect venom composition, significant changes in baseline CORT, or chronic stress, may affect the venom phenotype.

In the next study, we investigated the effects of chronically elevated CORT in a wild population of radio-telemetered Southern Pacific rattlesnakes (C. helleri). Snakes were implanted intra-coelomically with either crystalline CORT or sham implants. Prior to implant and for two week periods thereafter, we sampled blood, venom, defensive behavior, and body temperature (Tb). Thermal data logger implants recorded snake Tb each hour. Snakes were tracked daily for one month, and detectability, defensive behavior, movement, home range size and thermal parameters were calculated for each group during the periods between samples. Stress reactivity was assessed as change in CORT from baseline after one hour of acute confinement stress. CORT implants led to elevated baseline CORT for at least two weeks in treatment snakes, showing that our treatment was successful. Chapter 2 describes the effects of CORT treatment on venom parameters. Increased baseline CORT was associated with increased activity of venom protein phospholipase A2, indicating that CORT may have direct effects on regulating venom protein activity. Overall, venom activity was repeatable within individual snakes. Chapter 3 describes the effect of CORT on behavioral, ecological, and physiological variables. Implant treatment led to decreased average Tb in weeks two and three. We detected a trend for lower baseline CORT to predict a greater magnitude of acute stress response. Snakes with higher testosterone levels exhibited higher defensive behavior scores. Overall, there were no other effects of implant treatment.

Our results suggest that rattlesnake thermoregulation is impacted by chronic stress, which could affect other aspects of their metabolism and ecology. Results of both studies suggest baseline CORT may direct both the activity and relative abundance of venom proteins in different manners, a hypothesis which deserves further investigation using proteomic tools. When responding to an acute stressor, rattlesnakes may secrete CORT until a threshold response is reached, regardless of baseline levels. Overall, rattlesnakes appear resilient to the effects of researcher-induced disturbance in the laboratory and to two weeks of chronically elevated CORT in the field, as no change was detected in many of the parameters investigated.

Available for download on Friday, June 09, 2017

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