Date of Award
MS in Biological Sciences
Emily N. Taylor
The hippocampus of birds and mammals has been shown to play a crucial role in spatial memory and navigation. The hippocampus exhibits plasticity in adulthood in response to diverse environmental factors associated with spatial demands placed on an animal. The cortical telencephalon of squamate reptiles has been implicated as a functional homologue to the hippocampus. This study sought to experimentally manipulate the navigational demands placed on free-ranging northern Pacific rattlesnakes (Crotalus o. oreganus) to provide direct evidence of the relationship between spatial demands and neuroplasticity in the cortical telencephalon of the squamate brain. Adult male rattlesnakes were radio-tracked for two months, during which one of three treatments was imposed weekly: 225 meter translocation in a random direction, 225 meter walk and release at that day’s capture site (handling control), and undisturbed control. Snakes were then sacrificed and brains were removed and processed for histological analysis of cortical features. The volume of the medial cortex was significantly larger in the translocated group compared to undisturbed controls. No differences in dorsal or lateral cortical volume were detected among the groups. Numbers of 5-Bromo-2’-deoxyuridine (BrdU) -labeled cells in the medial and dorsal cortices three weeks after BrdU injection were not affected by treatment. The activity range was larger in the translocated group compared to handled and undisturbed controls. A causal relationship between increased navigation in a free-ranging reptile and changes in brain morphology was established.
The use of translocation as a conservation strategy for reptiles is a controversial topic revisited many times. Previous studies have demonstrated the aberrant movement patterns and mortality caused by translocation and have established that short-distance translocation within an animal’s home range is best for the animal. In conjunction with the neuroplasticity study, we examined the physiological impacts that repeated short-distance translocation and handling have on reptiles. This is essential knowledge if the efficacy of the technique is to be properly evaluated. Baseline and stressed concentrations of corticosterone and testosterone were assayed in blood taken immediately upon capture and following one hour of confinement in a bucket. Neither baseline nor stressed concentrations of either hormone were impacted by translocation or handling. Body condition and change in mass were not affected. Translocated animals had larger MCP activity ranges than handled and undisturbed animals at the 95%, but not 100% levels, while an interaction between time and treatment impacted other movement parameters.Treatment had no effect on a number of behaviors observed during visits to each animal. We suggest that rattlesnakes are quite resistant to potential impacts on their physiology and behavior enacted by frequent short-distance translocation or handling. Additionally, studies that require frequent handling of reptilian subjects are not likely to severely alter stress physiology.