Ancestry trumps experience: Transgenerational but not early life stress affects the adult physiological stress response

Gail L. McCormick, Travis R. Robbins, Sonia A. Cavigelli, Tracy Langkilde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Exposure to stressors can affect an organism's physiology and behavior as well as that of its descendants (e.g. through maternal effects, epigenetics, and/or selection). We examined the relative influence of early life vs. transgenerational stress exposure on adult stress physiology in a species that has populations with and without ancestral exposure to an invasive predator. We raised offspring of eastern fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus) from sites historically invaded (high stress) or uninvaded (low stress) by predatory fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) and determined how this different transgenerational exposure to stress interacted with the effects of early life stress exposure to influence the physiological stress response in adulthood. Offspring from these high- and low-stress populations were exposed weekly to either sub-lethal attack by fire ants (an ecologically relevant stressor), topical treatment with a physiologically-appropriate dose of the stress-relevant hormone, corticosterone (CORT), or a control treatment from 2 to 43 weeks of age. Several months after treatments ended, we quantified plasma CORT concentrations at baseline and following restraint, exposure to fire ants, and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) injection. Exposure to fire ants or CORT during early life did not affect lizard stress physiology in adulthood. However, offspring of lizards from populations that had experienced multiple generations of fire ant-invasion exhibited more robust adult CORT responses to restraint and ACTH-injection compared to offspring from uninvaded populations. Together, these results indicate that transgenerational stress history may be at least as important, if not more important, than early life stress in affecting adult physiological stress responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)115-121
Number of pages7
JournalHormones and Behavior
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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