Conflicts and interactions among reproduction, thermoregulation and feeding in viviparous reptiles: are gravid snakes anorexic?

Authors

  • Patrick T. Gregory,

    1. Department of Biology, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3020, STN CSC, Victoria, BC, Canada V8W 3N5
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  • Lisa H. Crampton,

    1. Department of Biology, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3020, STN CSC, Victoria, BC, Canada V8W 3N5
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    • EECB/314, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV 89557, U.S.A.

  • Kristina M. Skebo

    1. Department of Biology, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3020, STN CSC, Victoria, BC, Canada V8W 3N5
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    • Churchill Northern Studies Centre, P.O. Box 610, Churchill, MB, Canada R0B 0E0


Abstract

Constraints on time and energy suggest that animals often will have to forgo one activity in favour of another. In the field, gravid garter snakes, Thamnophis elegans, eat little or nothing, especially late in pregnancy. In addition, they spend considerable time basking, presumably to aid development of their progeny. Apparently, therefore, a conflict exists between feeding and behaviours related to gestation. Alternatively, low feeding levels in the field might reflect reduced ability to catch food while gravid, or anorexia, attributable either to reduced space in the gut or to physiological suppression of appetite. In this study, by supplying abundant food in the laboratory, we test the hypothesis that gravid females are anorexic; we also examine the interactions among feeding, thermoregulation and reproductive condition. Typically, gravid females, whether fed or not, spent most of their time at the warm end of a gradient, as did fed non-gravid snakes; unfed non-gravid females spent significantly less time at the warm end. However, gravid snakes, even when presented with food ad libitum, ate less than non-gravid snakes, suggesting that they are anorexic while pregnant. Feeding and thermoregulatory behaviours of gravid females changed around the time of parturition (increased feeding, reduced warming rate). Comparable changes are seen in animals in the field, and are correlated with changes in movement pattern. Evidently, the tendency to eat little food is carried over into the laboratory, even when apparent proximate causes of the behaviour are removed. Although we cannot distinguish clearly between the two potential causes of anorexia, the evidence slightly favours physiological suppression of appetite. Physiological suppression of appetite while gravid would ensure that the urge to forage rather than thermoregulate does not diminish the chances of present reproductive success. By contrast, non-gravid snakes, faced with a shortage of food, lower their body temperature and reduce their metabolic costs.

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