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The causes and ecological correlates of head scale asymmetry and fragmentation in a tropical snake.
The challenge of identifying the proximate causes and ecological consequences of phenotypic variation can be facilitated by studying traits that are usually but not always bilaterally symmetrical; deviations from symmetry likely reflect disrupted embryogenesis. Based on a 19-year mark-recapture study of >1300 slatey-grey snakes (Stegonotus cucullatus) in tropical Australia, and incubation of >700 eggs, we document developmental and ecological correlates of two morphological traits: asymmetry and fragmentation of head scales. Asymmetry was directional (more scales on the left side) and was higher in individuals with lower heterozygosity, but was not heritable. In contrast, fragmentation was heritable and was higher in females than males. Both scale asymmetry and fragmentation were increased by rapid embryogenesis but were not affected by hydric conditions during incubation. Snakes with asymmetry and fragmentation exhibited slightly lower survival and increased (sex-specific) movements, and females with more scale fragmentation produced smaller eggs. Counterintuitively, snakes with more asymmetry had higher growth rates (possibly reflecting trade-offs with other traits), and snakes with more fragmentation had fewer parasites (possibly due to lower feeding rates). Our data paint an unusually detailed picture of the complex genetic and environmental factors that, by disrupting early embryonic development, generate variations in morphology that have detectable correlations with ecological performance.
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