Patterns of Circulating Corticosterone in a Population of Rattlesnakes Afflicted with Snake Fungal Disease: Stress Hormones as a Potential Mediator of Seasonal Cycles in Disease Severity and Outcomes

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Snake fungal disease (SFD) is an emerging threat to snake populations in the United States. Fungal pathogens are often associated with a physiological stress response mediated by the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), and afflicted individuals may incur steep coping costs. The severity of SFD can vary seasonally; however, little is known regarding (1) how SFD infection relates to HPA activity and (2) how seasonal shifts in environment, life history, or HPA activity may interact to drive seasonal patterns of infection severity and outcomes. To test the hypothesis that SFD is associated with increased HPA activity and to identify potential environmental or physiological drivers of seasonal infection, we monitored baseline corticosterone, SFD infection severity, foraging success, body condition, and reproductive status in a field-active population of pigmy rattlesnakes. Both plasma corticosterone and the severity of clinical signs of SFD peaked in the winter. Corticosterone levels were also elevated in the fall before the seasonal rise in SFD severity. Severely symptomatic snakes were in low body condition and had elevated corticosterone levels compared to moderately infected and uninfected snakes. The monthly mean severity of SFD in the population was negatively related to population-wide estimates of body condition and temperature measured in the precedent month and positively correlated with corticosterone levels measured in the precedent month. Symptomatic females were less likely to enter reproductive bouts compared to asymptomatic females. We propose the hypothesis that the seasonal interplay among environment, host energetics, and HPA activity initiates trade-offs in the fall that drive the increase in SFD prevalence, symptom severity, and decline in condition observed in the population through winter.

glucocorticoid, hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis, allostatic load, conservation physiology, Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, cort-fitness hypothesis