The independent evolutionary origin of a complex trait, within a lineage otherwise lacking it, provides a powerful opportunity to test hypotheses on selective forces. Territorial defense of an area containing resources (such as food or shelter) is widespread in lizards but not snakes. Our studies on an insular population of Taiwanese kukrisnakes (Oligodon formosanus) show that females of this species actively defend sea turtle nests by repelling conspecifics for long periods (weeks) until the turtle eggs hatch or are consumed. A clutch of turtle eggs comprises a large, long-lasting food resource, unlike the prey types exploited by other types of snakes. Snakes of this species have formidable weaponry (massively enlarged teeth that are used for slitting eggshells), and when threatened, these snakes wave their tails toward the aggressor (an apparent case of head-tail mimicry). Bites to the tail during intraspecific combat bouts thus can have high fitness costs for males (because the hemipenes are housed in the tail). In combination, unusual features of the species (ability to inflict severe damage to male conspecifics) and the local environment (a persistent prey resource, large relative to the snakes consuming it) render resource defense both feasible and advantageous for female kukrisnakes. The (apparently unique) evolution of territorial behavior in this snake species thus provides strong support for the hypothesis that resource defensibility is critical to the evolution of territoriality.
|Number of pages||5|
|Journal||Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America|
|Publication status||Published - 3 May 2011|
- economic defensibility
- social system