In terrestrial snakes, rugose scales are uncommon and (if they occur) generally are found on both sexes. In contrast, rugose scales are seen in most sea snakes, especially in males. Why has marine life favored this sex-specific elaboration of scale rugosity? We pose and test alternative hypotheses about the function of rugose scales in males of the turtle-headed sea snake (Emydocephalus annulatus) and conclude that multiple selective forces have been involved. First, rugosities may aid male positioning during courtship, because histology shows that tubercles are more highly innervated than adjacent flat areas of each scale and hence are presumably more sensitive to tactile cues, and because biomechanical tests show that rugosities enhance friction between the bodies of males and females. Second, the occurrence of rugosities over the entire body of males and (albeit less well developed) in females as well suggests that rugosities also play a hydrodynamic role by modifying water flow across the snake's surface. Flow tank tests show that rugosities reduce the thickness of the boundary layer by almost 50% and create turbulent flow that should massively enhance rates of cutaneous oxygen uptake and hence prolong maximal courtship duration by males.
Bibliographical noteCopyright 2006 by University of Chicago Press. Originally published in The American Naturalist, American Naturalist 167, no. 5 (May 2006): 728-738. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.
- mate recognition
- sexual selection