The hippocampus of birds and mammals plays 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 medial and dorsal cortices of the telencephalon of squamate reptiles have been implicated as functional homologues 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 2 months, during which time 1 of 3 treatments was imposed weekly, namely 225-meter translocation in a random direction, 225-meter walk and release at that day’s capture site (handling control) or undisturbed (control). Snakes were then sacrificed and the brains were removed and processed for histological analysis of cortical features. The activity range was larger in the translocated (Tr) group compared to the handled (Hd) and undisturbed control (Cn) groups when measured via 95% minimum convex polygon (MCP). At the 100% MCP level, Tr snakes had larger activity ranges than the Cn snakes only. The volume of the medial cortex (MC) was larger in the Tr group compared to the Cn group. The MC of Hd snakes was not significantly different from that of either of the other groups. No differences in dorsal cortex (DC) or lateral cortex volumes were detected among the groups. Numbers of 5-bromo-2′-deoxyuridine (BrdU)-labeled cells in the MC and DC 3 weeks after BrdU injection were not affected by treatment. This study establishes a causal relationship between navigational demands and greater MC volume in a free-ranging reptile.



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