How to make a sexy snake: estrogen activation of female sex pheromone in male red-sided garter snakes.
Low temperature dormancy is a necessary requirement of the annual cycle of most nonmigratory, temperate vertebrates. The red-sided garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis, overwinters in communal dens during its prolonged winter dormancy (8 mo), and upon emergence, reproductive behavior of both sexes is maximal. Previous work on this species showed that male courtship behavior is maximally induced after simulated low temperature dormancy. The purpose of this study was to determine whether low temperature dormancy affects the pheromone profiles of individual female red-sided garter snakes. We collected females in the fall at den sites in Manitoba, Canada, and extracted pheromones from individuals at three different time points: fall (field), winter (lab), and spring (lab). Total skin lipid and pheromone fraction masses increased from fall to spring, and pheromone profiles were distinctly different in the fall and spring. Pheromone profiles became dominated by the long-chain, unsaturated methyl ketone components of the blend by the time snakes emerged in the spring. Further, the amounts of both saturated and unsaturated components increased from fall to spring, suggesting significant sex pheromone synthesis was induced by low temperature dormancy.