Why do snakes have eyes? The (non-)effect of blindness in island tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus)

Xavier Bonnet*, Don Bradshaw, Richard Shine, David Pearson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


Large (to > 1m), diurnally active tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus) are abundant on Carnac Island, near the coast of Western Australia. Our behavioural and mark-recapture studies provide the first ecological data on this population, and reveal a surprising phenomenon. Many adult tiger snakes have had their eyes destroyed, apparently during nest defence, by silver gulls (Larus novaehollandiae). This loss of vision did not reduce the snakes' body condition (mass relative to length), or their rates of growth or survival (measured over a 12-month period). Blind male snakes trail-followed females, and mated successfully. Thus, destruction of a major sensory modality had no detectable effect on these predators. This result is strongly counter-intuitive, but mirrors an earlier report of congenital blindness (without ill-effects) in American viperid snakes. Similarities between the two systems (island populations, highly venomous snakes, reliance on sessile prey) clarify the circumstances under which the loss of vision does not reduce an organism's viability. These natural experiments support Gans' hypothesis of 'momentarily excessive construction' in that the snakes possess a complex organ system that they do not actually require for successful feeding, survival or reproduction.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)267-272
Number of pages6
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Blindness
  • Foraging
  • Natural experiment
  • Snake
  • Venom
  • Vision


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