Corticosterone and the transition from courtship behavior to dispersal in male red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis)

Arianne J. Cease, Deborah I. Lutterschmidt, Robert T. Mason

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Seasonal modulation of baseline glucocorticoid concentrations as well as the sensitivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis plays an important role in supporting critical life-history events such as seasonal reproduction and migration. Despite numerous studies on adrenocortical modulation, little is known about the exact timing of this seasonal modulation with respect to critical life-history stages. We tested the hypothesis that seasonal modulation of the HPA axis during the spring mating season in male red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) is temporally linked to the mechanisms regulating dispersal. We compared hormonal responses to capture stress in courting male red-sided garter snakes collected from the den site and den perimeter to those of dispersing snakes collected 0.6 km from the den. We also investigated possible changes in steroid hormones during the spring mating season. These studies support previous findings that plasma androgen and corticosterone concentrations significantly decline over the mating season. Our results demonstrate that males 0.6 km into a 15-20 km route to the feeding grounds have lower baseline corticosterone concentrations than male snakes actively courting at the den. Dispersing males also exhibit a typical stress response marked by a significant increase in corticosterone while actively courting males do not. Capture stress did not significantly influence androgen concentrations of either courting or dispersing male red-sided garter snakes. There were no significant differences in body composition indices among male snakes collected from the den, den perimeter, or 0.6 km away from the den. However, we did observe a significant negative correlation between baseline corticosterone levels and body composition indices. These data suggest that breeding is a distinct stage accompanied by specific physiological parameters that differ from those during dispersal to the feeding grounds. Our results indicate that declining baseline corticosterone concentrations may play a role in the behavioral switch between actively courting and dispersing (i.e., feeding) in the late spring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)124-131
Number of pages8
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Androgen
  • Corticosterone
  • Dispersal
  • Feeding
  • Garter snake
  • Stress
  • Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Endocrinology


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