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Study Species

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Since 1991, the Mason Lab has been studying the biology of the red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) in the northernmost extent of its range in the Interlake Region of Manitoba, Canada. We have also conducted research on two local species of garter snakes (T. s. concinnus, T. ordinoides) which provide us with a rich comparative context for our numerous research areas. Lastly, we have just begun to incorporate a sympatric species of garter snake (T. radix) that overwinters with T. s. parietalis in Manitoba.

Current Research Areas

    1. The role of the Harderian gland in the chemical ecology of garter snakes

      We have recently discovered that the Harderian gland (HG), the largest cephalic gland in garter snakes, plays a critical role in the transfer of chemical signals (female pheromones, feeding cues) to the chemosensory epithelium of the vomeronasal organ (VNO). Male garter snakes who have had their HGs removed fail to court females and exhibit no response to female pheromone. The HG ducts to the VNO and thus bathes the VNO epithelium with secretions. We have strong evidence that these HG secretions contain compounds that play perireceptor roles in the snake chemosensory system by enabling the pheromone to travel to the VNO. This has become the primary focus of the Mason lab's research.

Vomeronasal/Harderian gland system of the garter snake

HG=Harderian gland, LC=lacrimal canal, NC=nasal cavity, LD=lacrimal duct, VNO=vomeronasal organ

 2. Pheromones in garter snakes

Dr. Robert Mason was the first scientist to isolate, identify, and synthesize a pheromone from a reptile, and his discovery fostered several research areas into the role of pheromones in the reproductive biology of garter snakes. Previous work by Dr. Michael LeMaster examined the intrasexual, seasonal, and population-level variation in the sexual attractiveness pheromone produced by female red-sided garter snakes. He has continued to collaborate with Dr. Mason and has involved several undergraduate students from Western Oregon University in projects that aim to describe species differences in pheromone composition from several garter snake species (e.g. Thamnophis ordinoides, Thamnophis radix). Recent projects by Honors students have investigated the effects that factors such as UV radiation and captivity have on pheromone profiles.

3. Comparative and experimental endocrinology

The red-sided garter snake shows strong patterns of seasonality, which are reflected in their behavior and circulating levels of sex and stress hormones. This species serves as a model dissociated breeder, meaning that their maximal mating behavior is uncoupled from gametogenesis and maximal sex steroid production. Several previous students in the Mason lab have explored different aspects of the endocrinology of this and sister taxa (T. s. concinnus, T. s. sirtalis).

4. Evolution of mating systems and strategies

Our focal species has a polygynandrous mating system that is excellent for investigating sperm competition, cryptic female choice, sperm storage, and sexual conflict, as numerous collaborative projects with Dr. Richard Shine have reported. Female red-sided garter snakes use stored sperm from multiple matings, and thus post-copulatory sexual selection and coevolution are likely important factors in this mating system. Previous collaborative work with Dr. Stevan Arnold and Dr. Suzanne Estes shed light on multiple paternity in this species. Dr. Chris Friesen, who completed his Ph.D. in the Mason lab, continues to work on the garter snake system and is exploring the consequences of limited female pre-copulatory choice. By looking at patterns of paternity, seasonality of mating, and mating frequency of both males and females, we hope to gain insight into the factors that drive sexual selection (e.g. Bateman's gradients) and sexual conflict in this system and how each sex has responded to resolve conflict. We have an ongoing collaboration with Dr. Patricia Brennan (University of Massachusetts Amherst) to assess the role of genital morphology in sexual conflict.

5. Metabolic cost of courtship and mating

In our system, the sex ratio is skewed, with males greatly outnumbering females during the spring mating season. Thus, males scramble to gain access to females, leading to mating balls of up to one hundred snakes. During the mating season, the snakes do not eat and engage in very robust, stereotypical courtship behavior that involves significant levels of activity. We have recently started a collaboration with Dr. Don Powers to assess the metabolic cost of courtship for these snakes. Mason lab alum, Dr. Chris Friesen (University of Sydney) is working with Dr. Powers on this topic using two separate approaches (doubly labeled water and respirometry) to address this question.

6. Reproductive implications of parasites

Garter snakes are host to several genera of endoparasites including trematodes, nematodes, and cestodes. Collaborations with Dr. Michael Kent (Oregon State University) and Dr. Vasyl Tkach (University of North Dakota) have allowed us to identify these parasites. The newest area of research in our lab, and the focus of work by recent graduate Dr. Emily Uhrig, investigates how infections by such parasites affect reproductive fitness in garter snakes. We are also investigating how immune activity can influence reproduction independent of parasite pathogenesis. As parasites and immune activity can potentially affect biological processes such as courtship and mating, gamete production, and pheromone production, and can also affect or be affected by endocrinology, this avenue of research interacts with many of the lab's other research areas. 

If you are interested in becoming a part of the Mason lab, please contact Dr. Mason directly (masonr at science.oregonstate.edu) or one of his grad students for more information (Ehren Bentz, bentze at science.oregonstate.edu, Leslie Blakemore, blakemol at science.oregonstate.edu or Dave Hubert, hubertd@onid.oregonstate.edu).