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Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2011 Dec 1;174(3):348-53. doi: 10.1016/j.ygcen.2011.09.015. Epub 2011 Oct 2.

Innate immune performance and steroid hormone profiles of pregnant versus nonpregnant cottonmouth snakes (Agkistrodon piscivorus).

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Department of Biological Sciences, 331 Funchess Hall, Auburn University, Auburn, AL 36849, USA.


Squamates (lizards and snakes) have independently evolved viviparity over 100 times, and exhibit a wide range of maternal investment in developing embryos from the extremes of lecithotrophic oviparity to matrotrophic viviparity. This group therefore provides excellent comparative opportunities for studying endocrine and immune involvement during pregnancy, and their possible interactions. We studied the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), since they exhibit limited placentation (e.g., ovoviviparity), allowing comparison with squamate species hypothesized to require considerable maternal immune modulation due to the presence of a more extensive placental connection. Furthermore, the cottonmouth's biennial reproductive cycle provides an opportunity for simultaneously comparing pregnant and non-pregnant females in the wild. We document significantly elevated concentrations of progesterone (P4) and significantly lower concentrations of estradiol (E2) in pregnant females relative to non-pregnant females. Pregnant females had lower plasma bacteria lysis capacity relative to non-pregnant females. This functional measure of innate immunity is a proxy for complement performance, and we also determined significant correlations between P4 and decreased complement performance in pregnant females. These findings are consistent with studies that have determined P4's role in complement modulation during pregnancy in mammals, and thus this study joins a growing number of studies that have demonstrated convergent and/or conserved physiological mechanisms regulating viviparous reproduction in vertebrates.

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