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Lizard moms may prepare their babies for a stressful world

Stressed out lizard moms tend to give their developing embryos short shrift, but the hardship may ultimately be a good thing for the babies once they're born, according to a study published in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology.

Stress changes the way animals allocate energy. During predator attacks or food shortages, hormones are released that help the body to access stored energy. But for pregnant females there's a potential trade-off. Stress hormones could rob precious energy from developing embryos, leading to offspring that aren't as healthy.

Skink mothers under stress allocate more energy to self-preservation at the cost of their developing offspring. But the rough start may actually be a benefit to the babies once they're born. Credit: Erik Wapstra

A research team led by Erik Wapstra of the University of Tasmania, Australia, tested the effects of stress on southern grass skinks, which, unlike many lizards, give birth to live young rather than laying eggs.

In the lab, the researchers recreated the physiology of a stressful situation by artificially raising levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in pregnant skins. Other skinks had their food intake limited, recreating the stress of a food shortage. The team then measured the health of the stressed mothers and their eventual offspring, and compared their state to mothers and offspring that weren't under stress.

The study found that stressed moms gave birth to smaller offspring that grew more slowly than those born to low-stress mothers. Stressed mothers themselves were found to be in better physical shape after giving birth than non-stressed mothers. That's a signal that when stressors are present, mothers tend to allocate energy to self-preservation first.

Despite seemingly getting the short end of the stick, the news wasn't all bad for offspring of stressed mothers. "We found that small offspring had larger fat reserves relative to body size…, which may enhance offspring survival in a stressful post-natal environment," the researchers write. Previous studies have also shown that smaller juvenile lizards often do better when predator density is high or when food availability is low.

It appears that a mother's stress-induced selfishness may actually help to pre-adapt her babies for a stressful world.

Keisuke Itonaga, Susan M. Jones, and Erik Wapstra, "Do Gravid Females Become Selfish? Female Allocation of Energy during Gestation." Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 85:3 (May/June 2012).

Physiological and Biochemical Zoology primarily publishes original research papers in animal physiology and biochemistry with a specific emphasis on studies that address the ecological and/or evolutionary aspects of physiological and biochemical mechanisms. Studies at all levels of biological organization from the molecular to the whole organism are welcome, and work that integrates levels of organization to address important questions in behavioral, ecological, evolutionary or comparative physiology is particularly encouraged.

Kevin Stacey | EurekAlert!
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