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Over a Decade of Field Physiology Reveals Life-History Specific Strategies to Drought in Garter Snakes (Thamnophis elegans)

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Proceedings of the Royal Society B

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Changing climates and severe weather events can affect population viability. Individuals need to buffer such negative fitness consequences through physiological plasticity. Whether certain life-history strategies are more conducive to surviving changing climates is unknown, but theory predicts that strategies prioritizing maintenance and survival over current reproduction should be better able to withstand such change. We tested this hypothesis in a meta-population of garter snakes having naturally occurring variation in life-history strategies. We tested whether slow pace-of-life (POL) animals, that prioritize survival over reproduction, are more resilient than fast POL animals as measured by several physiological biomarkers. From 2006 to 2019, which included two multi-year droughts, baseline and stress-induced reactivity of plasma corticosterone and glucose varied annually with directionalities consistent with life-history theory. Slow POL animals exhibited higher baseline corticosterone and lower baseline glucose, relative to fast POL animals. These patterns were also observed in stress-induced measures; thus, reactivity was equivalent between ecotypes. However, in drought years, measures of corticosterone did not differ between different life histories. Immune cell distribution showed annual variation independent of drought or life history. These persistent physiological patterns form a backdrop to several extirpations of fast POL populations, suggesting a limited physiological toolkit to surviving periods of extreme drought.

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