Sexual differences in morphology and niche utilization in an aquatic snake, Acrochordus arafurae

Richard Shine*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Citations (Scopus)


Filesnakes (Acrochordus arafurae) are large (to 2 m), heavy-bodied snakes of tropical Australia. Sexual dimorphism is evident in adult body sizes, weight/length ratios, and body proportions (relative head and tail lengths). Dimorphism is present even in neonates. Two hypotheses for the evolution of such dimorphism are (1) sexual selection or (2) adaptation of the sexes to different ecological niches. The hypothesis of sexual selection is consistent with general trends of sexually dimorphic body sizes in snakes, and accurately predicts, for A. arafurae, that the larger sex (female) is the one in which reproductive success increases most strongly with increasing body size. However, the sexual dimorphism in relative head sizes is not explicable by sexual selection. 

The hypothesis of adaptation to sex-specific niches predicts differences in habitats and/or prey. I observed major differences between male and female A. arafurae in prey types, prey sizes and habitat utilization (shallow versus deep water). Hence, the sexual dimorphism in relative head sizes is attributed to ecological causes rather than sexual selection. Nonetheless, competition between the sexes need not be invoked as the selective advantage of this character divergence. It is more parsimonious to interpret these differences as independent adaptations of each sex to increase foraging success, given pre-existing sexually-selected differences in size, habitat or behavior. Data for three other aquatic snake species, from phylogenetically distant taxa, suggest that sexual dimorphism in food habits, foraging sites and feeding morphology, is widespread in snakes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)260-267
Number of pages8
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 1986
Externally publishedYes


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