Does water availability during incubation significantly affect the phenotypes of hatchling reptiles in natural nests? Two obstacles to obtaining any general answer to this question are the scarcity of studies on tropical species, and the difficulty of comparing experimental treatments to actual hydric conditions in nature. We used a split-clutch design to incubate 102 eggs (eight clutches) of a colubrid snake species (the keelback, Tropidonophis mairii), from a floodplain in the Australian wet-dry tropics. This species breeds over most of the year, and highly seasonal rainfall regimes generate strong shifts in water content of the soil over this period. We measured soil water content in a natural nest, and incubated eggs in both soil and vermiculite (the usual medium for experimental studies) at a range of water contents. These calibration trials let us compare our experimental 'wet' and 'dry' incubation treatments to conditions in natural nests, in terms of actual water uptake by eggs. Hatchlings from dry incubation were unable to resorb their desiccated yolk and thus were smaller (17% in mass, 12% in body length) than their siblings from moist substrates. Incubation conditions also affected the hatchlings' muscular strength and locomotor speed: even at the same body length, dry-incubated hatchlings were weaker and slower than their wet-incubated siblings. Incubation moisture affected strength differently in males and females. We conclude that seasonal variation in water content of the soil in natural nests can generate strong phenotypic variation in hatchling snakes.
- Water potential