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Horm Behav. 2014 Aug;66(3):509-16. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2014.07.007. Epub 2014 Jul 22.

A novel mechanism regulating a sexual signal: the testosterone-based inhibition of female sex pheromone expression in garter snakes.

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Department of Zoology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA; Department of Biology, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA 24450, USA. Electronic address:
Department of Zoology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.


Vertebrates communicate their sex to conspecifics through the use of sexually dimorphic signals, such as ornaments, behaviors and scents. Furthermore, the physiological connection between hormones and secondary sexual signal expression is key to understanding their dimorphism, seasonality and evolution. The red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) is the only reptile for which a described pheromone currently exists, and because garter snakes rely completely on the sexual attractiveness pheromone for species identification and mate choice, they constitute a unique model species for exploring the relationship between pheromones and the endocrine system. We recently demonstrated that estrogen can activate female pheromone production in male garter snakes. The purpose of this study was to determine the mechanism(s) acting to prevent female pheromone production in males. We found that castrated males (GX) are courted by wild males in the field and produce appreciable amounts of female sex pheromone. Furthermore, pheromone production is inhibited in castrates given testosterone implants (GX+T), suggesting that pheromone production is actively inhibited by the presence of testosterone. Lastly, testosterone supplementation alone (T) increased the production of several saturated methyl ketones in the pheromone but not the unsaturated ketones; this may indicate that saturated ketones are testosterone-activated components of the garter snake's skin lipid milieu. Collectively, our research has shown that pheromone expression in snakes results from two processes: activation by the feminizing steroid estradiol and inhibition by testosterone. We suggest that basal birds and garter snakes share common pathways of activation that modulate crucial intraspecific signals that originate from skin.


Activation; Castration; Chemical ecology; Inhibition; Pheromone; Reproduction; Sexual signal; Snake; Testosterone; Thamnophis

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