The underlying genetic basis of life-history traits in free-ranging animals is critical to the effects of selection on such traits, but logistical constraints mean that such data are rarely available. Our long-term ecological studies on free-ranging oviparous snakes (keelbacks, Tropidonophis mairii (Gray, 1841), Colubridae) on an Australian floodplain provide the first such data for any tropical reptile. All size-corrected reproductive traits (egg mass, clutch size, clutch mass and post-partum maternal mass) were moderately repeatable between pairs of clutches produced by 69 female snakes after intervals of 49-1152 days, perhaps because maternal body condition was similar between clutches. Parent-offspring regression of reproductive traits of 59 pairs of mothers and daughters revealed high heritability for egg mass (h2 = 0.73, SE = 0.24), whereas heritability for the other three traits was low (< 0.37). The estimated heritability of egg mass may be inflated by maternal effects such as differential allocation of yolk steroids to different-sized eggs. High heritability of egg size may be maintained (rather than eroded by stabilizing selection) because selection acts on a trait (hatchling size) that is determined by the interaction between egg size and incubation substrate rather than by egg size alone. Variation in clutch size was mainly because of environmental factors (h2 = 0.04), indicating that one component of the trade-off between egg size and clutch size is under much tighter genetic control than the other. Thus, the phenotypic trade-off between egg size and egg number in keelback snakes occurs because each female snake must allocate a finite amount of energy into eggs of a genetically determined size.
- life history
- quantitative genetics