Viviparity (live-bearing) in reptiles often is interpreted as an adaptation to cold climates. This hypothesis relies on (i) body temperatures of gravid females being higher than soil (nest) temperatures; (ii) embryonic development being accelerated by this temperature difference; and (iii) survivorship of hatchlings being increased if eggs hatch before the advent of cold weather in autumn. I gathered data to test these assumptions, using eight species of scincid lizards in a high-elevation area of southeastern Australia.
Due to behavioural thermoregulation, body temperatures of gravid lizards average ca. 7°C higher than soil (nest) temperatures. Oviparous female lizards retain eggs in utero for ca. 50% of development. Laboratory studies show that a temperature increase from 17°C (mean nest temperature) to 24°C (mean lizard temperature) reduces incubation periods of eggs by >40 days in heliothermic species, and <20 days in a thigmothermic species. In the field, soil temperatures drop to lethally low levels shortly after the usual time of hatching. Simple calculations show that without the acceleration of development caused by uterine retention, eggs could not hatch prior to the onset of these low temperatures in the field. These results support the major assumptions of the "cold climate hypothesis" for the evolution of reptilian viviparity.