Chastity belts in gartersnakes: the functional significance of mating plugs

R. Shine*, M. M. Olsson, R. T. Mason

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

107 Citations (Scopus)


Male red-sided gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) deposit a thick gelatinous plug that occludes the female cloaca after copulation. Previous workers have interpreted the plug as a sexually-selected adaptation to (1) physically prevent re-mating by the female, and/or (2) provide pheromonal cues to discourage courtship by rival males or to decrease receptivity by females. Our data support the former hypothesis, but not the latter. Plugs serve as effective physical barriers to additional copulation for <72 h, but this is long enough for most females to become unreceptive, and/or disperse from the mating aggregation. Experimental removal of plugs immediately after copulation results in some re-mating by females, but plug removal several hours later does not rekindle sexual receptivity. Contrary to previous work, our experiments show that fluids associated with copulation (rather than the plug per se) are responsible for the rapid decline of male interest in mated females. Thus, the plug's primary function is to physically prevent matings rather than as a source of pheromonal cues to manipulate the behaviour of females or rival males. Plug mass is determined not only by a male's body size, but by his prior mating history (plug mass decreases with repeated mating) and by the size of his partner (males allocate larger plugs to larger females). Gartersnakes are unusual not only in their production of mating plugs, but also in their brief duration of copulation compared to other snakes. Mating plugs may have evolved in gartersnakes to reduce mating times, because of the extremely high 'opportunity cost' of prolonged mating to a male gartersnake in a mating aggregation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)377-390
Number of pages14
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Copulatory plug
  • Mating system
  • Pheromone
  • Reptile
  • Sexual selection
  • Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis


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