Plasticity matches phenotype to local conditions despite genetic homogeneity across 13 snake populations

Xavier Bonnet, François Brischoux, Marine Briand, Richard Shine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In a widespread species, a matching of phenotypic traits to local environmental optima is generally attributed to site-specific adaptation. However, the same matching can occur via adaptive plasticity, without requiring genetic differences among populations. Adult sea kraits (Laticauda saintgironsi) are highly philopatric to small islands, but the entire population within the Neo-Caledonian Lagoon is genetically homogeneous because females migrate to the mainland to lay their eggs at communal sites; recruits disperse before settling, mixing up alleles. Consequently, any matching between local environments (e.g. prey sizes) and snake phenotypes (e.g. body sizes and relative jaw sizes (RJSs)) must be achieved via phenotypic plasticity rather than spatial heterogeneity in gene frequencies. We sampled 13 snake colonies spread along an approximately 200 km northwest-southeast gradient (n > 4500 individuals) to measure two morphological features that affect maximum ingestible prey size in gape-limited predators: body size and RJS. As proxies of habitat quality (HQ), we used protection status, fishing pressure and lagoon characteristics (lagoon width and distance of islands to the barrier reef). In both sexes, spatial variation in body sizes and RJSs was linked to HQ; albeit in different ways, consistent with sex-based divergences in foraging ecology. Strong spatial divergence in morphology among snake colonies, despite genetic homogeneity, supports the idea that phenotypic plasticity can facilitate speciation by creating multiple phenotypically distinct subpopulations shaped by their environment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20202916
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings. Biological sciences
Issue number1943
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jan 2021


  • gape limited
  • jaw size
  • Laticauda
  • local adaptation
  • New Caledonia
  • sea krait


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