Disruption or aposematism? Significance of dorsal zigzag pattern of European vipers
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- Valkonen, J., Niskanen, M., Björklund, M. et al. Evol Ecol (2011) 25: 1047. doi:10.1007/s10682-011-9463-0
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European vipers (genus Vipera) are venomous and often have a distinctive dorsal zigzag pattern. The zigzag pattern of vipers has been suggested to be an example of disruptive colouration which reduces the detectability of a snake. However, recent studies suggest that the patterns have an aposematic function, although those experiments did not exclude the possibility of disruptive colouration. We used plasticine replicas of snakes to examine whether the zigzag pattern of European vipers provides protection from avian predator attacks via disruptive or aposematic function, or if the zigzag pattern might simultaneously serve both antipredatory functions. Experiments were conducted in the Coto Doñana National Park southern Spain. In the experiment, predation pressure caused by birds was compared between zigzag pattern (patterns were painted with and without disruptive effect i.e. breaking body outline or not), classical disruptive colouration (non-randomly placed patterns that breaks body outline) and control markings (replicas with length wise stripes and models without painted pattern) on natural and controlled backgrounds. We found that zigzag patterned snake replicas suffered less predation than striped ones regardless of the background, providing further evidence that the zigzag pattern of European vipers functions as a warning signal against predators. However, we did not find evidence that the zigzag pattern involves a disruptive effect.