Darwinian theory predicts that organisms will display traits that benefit themselves rather than other individuals; exceptions to this rule usually are explicable by kin selection. Our studies on an insular population of venomous snakes in north-eastern China reveal a different situation. Only one species of snake (Gloydius shedaoensis, Viperidae) occurs on the island of Shedao, and displays altruism between size (age) classes. First, small snakes frequently kill prey items larger than they can swallow themselves. This behaviour enhances rates of feeding of larger conspecifics, which scavenge the birds' carcasses. Second, large snakes kill raptorial birds (sparrowhawks Accipiter nisus) that pose little or no threat to themselves. This behaviour reduces predation risk for smaller snakes. These effects are presumably accidental consequences of the high venom toxicity of the pit-vipers, which enable them to kill inedible prey and non-threatening predators at little cost. Nonetheless, this 'accidental altruism' may have significant ecological consequences. For example, these behaviours may contribute to the remarkably high population densities of snakes on Shedao.
- Field experiments