Age-related sex differences in body condition and telomere dynamics of red-sided garter snakes

Nicky Rollings, Emily J. Uhrig, Randolph W. Krohmer, Heather L. Waye, Robert T. Mason, Mats Olsson, Camilla M. Whittington, Christopher R. Friesen

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42 Scopus citations


Life-history strategies vary dramatically between the sexes, which may drive divergence in sex-specific senescence and mortality rates. Telomeres are tandem nucleotide repeats that protect the ends of chromosomes from erosion during cell division. Telomeres have been implicated in senescence and mortality because they tend to shorten with stress, growth and age.We investigated age-specific telomere length in female and male red-sided garter snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis. We hypothesized that age-specific telomere length would differ between males and females given their divergent reproductive strategies. Male garter snakes emerge from hibernation with high levels of corticosterone, which facilitates energy mobilization to fuel mate-searching, courtship and mating behaviours during a two to four week aphagous breeding period at the den site. Conversely, females remain at the dens for only about 4 days and seem to invest more energy in growth and cellular maintenance, as they usually reproduce biennially. As male investment in reproduction involves a yearly bout of physiologically stressful activities, while females prioritize self-maintenance, we predicted male snakes would experience more age-specific telomere loss than females. We investigated this prediction using skeletochronology to determine the ages of individuals and qPCR to determine telomere length in a cross-sectional study. For both sexes, telomere length was positively related to body condition. Telomere length decreased with age in male garter snakes, but remained stable in female snakes. There was no correlation between telomere length and growth in either sex, suggesting that our results are a consequence of divergent selection on life histories of males and females. Different selection on the sexes may be the physiological consequence of the sexual dimorphism and mating system dynamics displayed by this species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20162146
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1852
StatePublished - Apr 12 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (DBI-1308394 to C.R.F.) and University of Sydney (Animal and Veterinary Biosciences Fellowship to C.M.W.) and University of Minnesota Morris Division of Science and Mathematics (to H.L.W.).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.


  • Condition
  • Life-history strategies
  • Reptile
  • Sex-differences
  • Telomeres


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