We investigated levels of plasma progesterone (P4), 17β-estradiol (E2), testosterone (T), and corticosterone (CORT) during gestation and post-birth periods in wild-collected female copperhead snakes (Viperidae; Agkistrodon contortrix). We also sought to determine whether CORT levels at (or near) birth dramatically increase and were correlated with duration of labor and litter size. Specifically, pregnant subjects (N = 14) were collected during early- to mid-gestation, held in the laboratory, and repeatedly bled to obtain plasma for steroid analyses. Progesterone showed significant changes during gestation, with the highest levels at the onset of sampling (circa 50 days prior to birth); P4 progressively declined up to parturition, and basal levels were observed thereafter. At the onset of sampling, E2 was at peak levels and fell sharply at circa 30 days prior to birth, a trend observed throughout the post-birth sampling period. Throughout the entire sampling period, T was undetectable. Although CORT showed no significant changes during gestation and several days following parturition, there was a highly significant peak at the time of birth. Our findings mirror the results of previous studies on pregnancy and steroid hormones of other live-bearing snakes, lizards, and mammals. As expected, there was a significant relationship between duration of labor and litter size; however, although levels of CORT did not achieve significance, there was a positive trend with litter size. We suggest that elevation of CORT at birth is involved in the mobilization and regulation of energy stores necessary for the physiological process of parturition and as a possible mechanism to trigger birth.
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Vol. 29 • No. 4