Maternal stress alters the phenotype of the mother, her eggs and her offspring in a wild-caught lizard

David C. Ensminger, Tracy Langkilde, Dustin A.S. Owen, Kirsty J. MacLeod, Michael J. Sheriff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


While biomedical researchers have long appreciated the influence of maternally derived glucocorticoids (GCs) on offspring phenotype, ecologists have only recently begun exploring its impact in wild animals. Interpreting biomedical findings within an ecological context has posited that maternal stress, mediated by elevations of maternal GCs, may play an adaptive role preparing offspring for a stressful or rigorous environment. Yet, the influence of maternal stress on offspring phenotype has been little studied in wild animals. We experimentally elevated GCs to ecologically relevant levels (mimicking increases in maternal stress hormones following a nonlethal predator encounter, a heat challenge, or a chasing or confinement stressor) in female eastern fence lizards Sceloporus undulatus during gestation. We tested the hypothesis that maternally derived stress hormones themselves are sufficient to alter offspring phenotype. Specifically, we examined the effects of experimentally elevated maternal GCs on fitness-relevant traits of the mother, her eggs and her subsequent offspring. We found that daily maternal GC elevation: (a) increased maternal antipredator behaviours and postlaying glucose levels; (b) had no effect on egg morphology or caloric value, but altered yolk hormone (elevated GC) and nutrient content; and (c) altered offspring phenotype including stress-relevant physiology, morphology and behaviour. These findings reveal that maternally derived GCs alone can alter offspring phenotype in a wild animal, changes that may be mediated via maternal behaviour, and egg hormone and nutrient content. Understanding the ecological consequences of these effects under different environmental conditions will be critical for determining the adaptive significance of elevated maternal GCs for offspring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1685-1697
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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