The adaptive significance of reptilian viviparity in the tropics: testing the maternal manipulation hypothesis

Jonathan K. Webb*, Richard Shine, Keith A. Christian

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Citations (Scopus)


Phylogenetic transitions from oviparity to viviparity in reptiles generally have occurred in cold climates, apparently driven by selective advantages accruing from maternal regulation of incubation temperature. But why, then, are viviparous reptiles so successful in tropical climates? Viviparity might enhance fitness in the tropics via the same pathway as in the temperate zone, if pregnant female reptiles in the tropics maintain more stable temperatures than are available in nests (Shine's maternal manipulation hypothesis). Alternatively, viviparity might succeed in the tropics for entirely different reasons than apply in the temperate zone. Our data support the maternal manipulation hypothesis. In a laboratory thermal gradient, pregnant death adders (Acanthophis praelongus) from tropical Australia maintained less variable body temperatures (but similar mean temperatures) than did nonpregnant females. Females kept at a diel range of 25-31°C (as selected by pregnant females) gave birth earlier and produced larger offspring (greater body length and head size) than did females kept at 23-33°C (as selected by nonpregnant snakes). Larger body size enhanced offspring recapture rates (presumably reflecting survival rates) in the field. Thus, even in the tropics, reproducing female reptiles manipulate the thermal regimes experienced by their developing embryos in ways that enhance the fitness of their offspring. This similarity across climatic zones suggests that a single general hypothesis - maternal manipulation of thermal conditions for embryogenesis - may explain the selective advantage of viviparity in tropical as well as cold-climate reptiles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-122
Number of pages8
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • adaptation
  • egg-laying
  • incubation
  • live-bearing
  • reproduction
  • snake


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