Stressed snakes strike first: Hormone levels and defensive behavior in free ranging cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

Mark W. Herr, Sean P. Graham, Tracy Langkilde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Stress is believed to be an important factor mediating animal behavior. Here we explore the relationship between concentrations of a stress hormone and defensive behavior of a snake. The cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) is an abundant, large-bodied pitviper that is well known for its intense defensive behaviors. The defensive behaviors and hormonal ecology of cottonmouths have been studied extensively, but the interaction between these is not well understood. We conducted field trials, recording the snake's behavior and obtaining blood samples to quantify plasma CORT concentrations, both upon first encountering a snake and after a 30 min standardized confinement stressor. We found that snakes with elevated levels of baseline CORT at first encounter were more likely to strike than exhibit a threat display when approached in the field. However, this behavior was not related to the magnitude of the snake's CORT increase following confinement, suggesting that more stress-prone snakes are not more defensive. Post-stressor antipredator behavior was also not related to any of our CORT measures. This study suggests that baseline CORT levels can be important correlates of defensive behavior. If this is a causative relationship, environmental challenges that increase baseline stress levels of populations may elevate cottonmouth defensive behavior. This would increase costs associated with defensive behavior (energetic, lost opportunity, etc.) and have important consequences for animal-human interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-95
Number of pages7
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Endocrinology


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