Not just a chastity belt: the functional significance of mating plugs in garter snakes, revisited

Christopher R. Friesen*, Richard Shine, Randolph W. Krohmer, Robert T. Mason

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


During the spring emergence of red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) in Manitoba, Canada, the operational sex ratio is strongly skewed towards males, who scramble to locate and court newly emerged females. A high frequency of multiple paternity litters suggests that the females are promiscuous; the gelatinous copulatory plugs (CPs) deposited by males may confer fitness benefits via passive mate guarding. Because precopulatory female choice is limited in large mating aggregations, sexual conflict may place a premium on preventing females from ejecting male sperm. In snakes, sperm are produced in the testes and delivered through the ductus deferens, and the CP is thought to be produced by the renal sexual segment and conveyed through the ureter. We manipulated the delivery of the two fluids separately by surgically ligating the ducts. Ureter-ligated males did not produce a CP, causing their sperm to leak out of the female's cloaca immediately after copulation. Contrary to previous suggestions, histology revealed sperm distributed throughout the CP. Thus, the CP may function as a spermatophore: the protein matrix contains the sperm, which are liberated gradually as the plug dissolves. The likelihood of a male depositing a CP fell significantly after his second mating, perhaps limiting his reproductive success. These results challenge the hypothesis that passive mate guarding is the primary function of the CP in T.sirtalis parietalis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)893-907
Number of pages15
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • copulatory plug
  • cryptic female choice
  • mating plug
  • mating system
  • reptile
  • sexual selection
  • sperm competition


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