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Evolutionary biology

Adaptive developmental plasticity in snakes

Genes and environment stretch snake jaws to meet the demands of prey size.


The morphology of organisms is generally well matched to their environment, presumably because expression of their genes is tailored either at the population or the individual level to suit local conditions: for example, snake populations that persistently encounter large prey may accumulate gene mutations that specify a large head size, or head growth may be increased in individual snakes to meet local demands (adaptive developmental plasticity)1. Here we test the relative contributions of genetics and environment to the jaw sizes of two tiger snake populations: one that consumes small prey on the mainland, and an island population that relies on larger prey and has a larger jaw size. Although the idea of adaptive plasticity in response to environmental pressures is controversial2, we find that both factors influence the difference in jaw size between the two populations, and the influence of developmental plasticity is greater in the island population.

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Figure 1
Figure 2: Relative jaw length of growing tiger snakes as a function of prey size.


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Correspondence to Richard Shine.

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Aubret, F., Shine, R. & Bonnet, X. Adaptive developmental plasticity in snakes. Nature 431, 261–262 (2004).

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