The transvestite serpent: why do male garter snakes court (some) other males?

R. Shine*, P. Harlow, M. P. LeMaster, I. T. Moore, R. T. Mason

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Citations (Scopus)


In large mating aggregations of red-sided garter snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis, in Manitoba, male courtship is directed not only to females, but also to other males with female-like skin lipids ('she-males'). We show that 'she-maleness' is an intrinsic property of a male rather than an artefact of lipid transfer from females, and that male-male courtship is very common in the field. She-males were distinctive in terms of appearance (they were heavier than other males and more often covered with mud), behaviour (they were inactive and rarely courted females) and performance (they were slow crawlers, ineffective courters and easily outcompeted by other males in mating trials). 'She-maleness' was not a characteristic of a particular subset of males, as envisaged in previous work; instead, it was a transitory phase that most (perhaps all) male snakes passed through soon after they first emerged from the winter den. Recently emerged males spent their first day or two relatively inactive, while restoring physiological functions (including locomotor performance and courtship ability). Experimental application of female skin lipids on to males dramatically decreased courtship levels of the recipient snakes. Thus, recently emerged males may derive two kinds of benefit from mimicking female skin lipids. First, female mimicry 'switches off' the male's own (energetically expensive) courtship at a time when that courtship would be unproductive. Second, it may disadvantage his rivals by distracting them from females, and increasing their energy expenditure.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)349-359
Number of pages11
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2000
Externally publishedYes

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'The transvestite serpent: why do male garter snakes court (some) other males?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this