The influence of natural selection and sexual selection on the tails of sea-snakes (Laticauda colubrina)

Richard Shine*, Sohan Shetty

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


Many phenotypic traits perform more than one function, and so can influence organismal fitness in more than one way. Sexually dimorphic traits offer an exceptional opportunity to clarify such complexity, especially if the trait involved is subject to natural as well as sexual selection, and if the sexes differ in ecology as well as reproductive behaviour. Relative tail length in sea-snakes fulfils these conditions. Our field studies on a Fijian population of yellow-lipped sea kraits (Laticauda colubrina) show that relative tail lengths in male sea kraits have strong consequences for individual fitness, both via natural and sexual selection. Males have much longer tails (relative to snout-vent length) than do females. Mark-recapture studies revealed a trade-off between growth and survival: Males with relatively longer tails grew more slowly, but were more likely to survive, than were shorter-tailed males. A male snake's tail length relative to body length influenced not only his growth rate and probability of survival, but also his locomotor ability and mating success. Relative tail length in male sea kraits was thus under a complex combination of selective forces. These forces included directional natural selection (through effects on survival, growth and swimming speed) as well as stabilizing natural selection (males with average-length tails swam faster) and stabilizing sexual selection (males with average-length tails obtained more matings). In contrast, our study did not detect significant selection on relative tail length in females. This sex difference may reflect the fact that females use their tails primarily for swimming, whereas males also must frequently use the tail in terrestrial locomotion and in courtship as well as for swimming.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-129
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Growth rates
  • Laticaudidae
  • Locomotor speed
  • Mating success
  • Sea kraits


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