Previous research on developmentally plastic responses by reptile embryos has paid relatively little attention to tropical species, or to possible interactions between the effects of thermal and hydric regimes. In the present study, eggs of keelback snakes (Tropidonophis mairii), from a tropical area with strong temporal and spatial variation in soil temperatures and moisture levels, were incubated. The phenotypic traits of hatchling snakes (body size, shape, muscular strength) were affected by moisture content of the incubation medium (vermiculite plus 100% vs. 50% water by mass), by mean incubation temperatures (25.7 vs. 27.9°C) and by diel thermal variation (diel range 6.0 vs. 8.4°C). Interactions between these factors were negligible. Cooler, more thermostable, moister conditions resulted in larger offspring, a trait under strong selection in this population. Thermal and hydric conditions covary in potential nest-sites (e.g. deeper nests are more thermostable as well as moister). This covariation may influence the evolution of reaction norms for embryogenesis. For example, if moister nests enhance offspring fitness and are cooler, then selection will favour the ability to develop in cool as well as moist conditions. Thus, the evolution of optimal incubation conditions with respect to one variable (e.g. temperature) may be driven by patterns of association with another variable (e.g. soil moisture) among natural nest-sites. Perhaps for this reason, the thermal optimum for incubation is surprisingly low in this tropical species.
- developmental plasticity