Oral Presentation Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution Conference 2016

Snakes, plugs and mating balls: Telomere dynamics in red-sided garter snakes (#211)

Nicky Rollings 1 , Heather L Waye 2 , Randolph W Krohmer 3 , Emily J Uhrig 4 , Robert T Mason 4 , Mats Olsson 5 , Camilla Whittington 1 , Chris R Friesen 1
  1. University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW, Australia
  2. University of Minnesota, Morris, Minnesota, USA
  3. Saint Xavier University, Chicago, Illinois, USA
  4. Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
  5. Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

Sexual conflict may arise when male and female individuals of a species have different reproductive strategies. These different strategies mean the sexes experience different costs and trade-offs and it may be possible to observe these differences at a molecular level. Telomeres are short tandem repeats found at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with stress and growth. The rate of shortening is often correlated with the lifespan of an organism. We therefore chose to investigate the telomere dynamics of a species that experiences sexual conflict, the red-sided garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis. Male garter snakes emerge from hibernation with high levels of corticosterone, are aphagous during the mating season, and invest all of their time in trying to mate. Conversely, females often only reproduce every second year, and invest more energy into maintaining a stable thermal environment in order to produce fit offspring. As males invest more highly into reproduction while females prioritise self-maintenance we would predict that male snakes would experience more telomere loss than females. We investigated this by determining the ages of individuals using skeletal chronology and used qPCR to determine blood telomere length. Telomere length decreased with age in male garter snakes but remained stable in female snakes. Furthermore, we assessed the relationship between blood and sperm telomere length in male garter snakes, finding a moderate correlation (R2 = 0.285).  This suggests that older male garter snakes may pass shorter telomeres on to their offspring, potentially affecting their fitness.