Sexual conflict in the snake den

Richard Shine*, David O'Connor, Robert T. Mason

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)


Red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) court and mate in spring, soon after they emerge from large communal overwintering dens in south-central Manitoba. Because of a massive bias in the operational sex ratio, every female attracts intense courtship from dozens to hundreds of males. We suggest that this courtship constitutes significant 'harassment,' because it delays the females' dispersal from the den and hence increases their vulnerability to predation. Small females may face the greatest costs, because they are less able to escape from amorous males (who court all females, even juvenile animals). Our measurements show that males are stronger and faster than females. Experimental trials confirm that the locomotor ability of females (especially small females) is greatly reduced by the weight of a courting male. Arena trials show that intense courtship stimulates females to attempt to escape. Remarkably, some females that are too small to produce offspring may nonetheless copulate. This precocious sexual receptivity may benefit juvenile females because copulation renders them unattractive to males, and thus allows them to escape more easily from the den. Female 'tactics' to escape male harassment may explain other puzzling aspects of garter snake biology including size-assortative mating, temporal patterns in dispersal from the den, avoidance of communal dens by young-of-the-year snakes, and female mimicry. Hence, sexual conflict may have influenced important features of the mating system and behavioral ecology of these animals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)392-401
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Female mimicry
  • Garter snake
  • Mating
  • Sexual harassment
  • Thamnophis sirtalis


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