Adapting to the unpredictable: reproductive biology of vertebrates in the Australian wet-dry tropics

Richard Shine*, Gregory P. Brown

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

140 Citations (Scopus)


In the wet-dry tropics of northern Australia, temperatures are high and stable year-round but monsoonal rainfall is highly seasonal and variable both annually and spatially. Many features of reproduction in vertebrates of this region may be adaptations to dealing with this unpredictable variation in precipitation, notably by (i) using direct proximate (rainfall-affected) cues to synchronize the timing and extent of breeding with rainfall events, (ii) placing the eggs or offspring in conditions where they will be buffered from rainfall extremes, and (iii) evolving developmental plasticity, such that the timing and trajectory of embryonic differentiation flexibly respond to local conditions. For example, organisms as diverse as snakes (Liasis fuscus, Acrochordus arafurae), crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus), birds (Anseranas semipalmata) and wallabies (Macropus agilis) show extreme annual variation in reproductive rates, linked to stochastic variation in wet season rainfall. The seasonal timing of initiation and cessation of breeding in snakes (Tropidonophis mairii) and rats (Rattus colletti) also varies among years, depending upon precipitation. An alternative adaptive route is to buffer the effects of rainfall variability on offspring by parental care (including viviparity) or by judicious selection of nest sites in oviparous taxa without parental care. A third type of adaptive response involves flexible embryonic responses (including embryonic diapause, facultative hatching and temperature-dependent sex determination) to incubation conditions, as seen in squamates, crocodilians and turtles. Such flexibility fine-tunes developmental rates and trajectories to conditions - especially, rainfall patterns - that are not predictable at the time of oviposition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)363-373
Number of pages11
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1490
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • adaptation
  • embryo
  • predictability
  • reproduction
  • reptile
  • seasonal


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