Event Abstract


  • 1 Oregon State University, Zoology, United States
  • 2 SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Anatomy and Cell Biology, United States

We study the evolution of chemical communication systems in vertebrates by examining both the diversity of chemical signals and the underlying physiological mechanisms mediating their production, expression, and reception. Reproduction in reptiles, snakes in particular, is dependent on the production and perception of sex pheromones. One of the few vertebrate pheromones isolated, characterized, and synthesized is the sex pheromone of the Red-sided Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis. When males encounter a female expressing the pheromone, they exhibit stereotyped courtship behaviors including chin-rubbing and rapid tongue-flicks. The pheromone, a nonpolar, hydrophobic blend of 13 long-chain (C29–C37) saturated and monounsaturated methyl ketones, is insoluble in aqueous solutions. This pheromone is detected by the vomeronasal organ (VNO), which is specialized for the reception of nonvolatile chemical cues. Male garter snakes deprived of a functional vomeronasal (VN) system are unable to detect or respond appropriately to pheromones. But the mechanism by which the hydrophobic pheromone gains access to the aqueous environment of the VNO remained unknown. Results to date indicate that the Harderian glands’ (HG) secretions, which duct exclusively into the VNO in snakes, contain pheromone-binding proteins. For over 300 years, the function of the cephalic HG of vertebrates has been the subject of speculation. Our studies in garter snakes demonstrate that the HG serves as a mediator in providing access for the female sex pheromone to the VNO of male garter snakes. In addition, feeding involves detection of prey chemoattractants by the VN system as well, and may require carrier molecules to deliver prey chemoattractant proteins to the VNO (supported by NSF grant 0620125 to RTM).


supported by NSF grant 0620125 to RTM

Keywords: Chemoreception, garter snake, perireceptor, Reproduction, sex pheromone, Vomeronasal Organ

Conference: NASCE 2011: The inaugural meeting of the North American Society for Comparative Endocrinology, Ann Arbor, United States, 13 Jul - 16 Jul, 2011.

Presentation Type: Invited Symposium

Topic: Ectohormones

Citation: Mason RT and Halpern M (2011). CHEMICAL ECOLOGY OF SNAKES: FROM PHEROMONES TO RECEPTORS. Front. Endocrinol. Conference Abstract: NASCE 2011: The inaugural meeting of the North American Society for Comparative Endocrinology. doi: 10.3389/conf.fendo.2011.04.00086

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Received: 04 Aug 2011; Published Online: 09 Aug 2011.

* Correspondence: Prof. Robert T Mason, Oregon State University, Zoology, Corvallis, Oregon, 97331-2914, United States, masonr@science.oregonstate.edu