Parental care is a complex social behavior that is widespread among vertebrates. The neuroendocrine regulation of parent-offspring social behavior has been well-described in mammals, and, to a lesser extent, birds and fish. However, little is known regarding the underlying mechanisms that mediate the expression of care behaviors in squamate reptiles. In mammalian model species and humans, posterior pituitary hormones of the oxytocin and vasopressin families mediate parental care behaviors. To test the hypothesis that the regulatory role of posterior pituitary neuropeptides is conserved in a viviparous squamate reptile, we pharmacologically blocked the vasotocin receptor in postparturient pigmy rattlesnakes, Sistrurus miliarius, and monitored the spatial relationship between mothers and offspring relative to controls. Mothers in the control group demonstrated spatial aggregation with offspring, with mothers having greater postparturient energy stores aggregating more closely with their offspring. Blockade of vasotocin receptors eliminated evidence of spatial aggregation between mothers and offspring and eliminated the relationship between maternal energetic status and spatial aggregation. Our results are the first to implicate posterior pituitary neuropeptides in the regulation of maternal behavior in a squamate reptile and are consistent with the hypothesis that the neuroendocrine mechanisms underlying social behaviors are broadly conserved among vertebrates.
- Received October 25, 2016.
- Accepted January 3, 2017.
- © 2017. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium provided that the original work is properly attributed.