, Volume 28, Issue 6, pp 1269-1285

Variation in a Female Sexual Attractiveness Pheromone Controls Male Mate Choice in Garter Snakes

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Abstract

Male red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) display a courtship preference for larger females during the breeding season. Utilizing behavioral experiments and chemical analyses, we tested the hypothesis that males can discriminate among females of varying size solely by means of the sexual attractiveness pheromone, a previously characterized sex pheromone composed of a homologous series of long-chain saturated and ω-9 cis-unsaturated methyl ketones contained in the skin lipids of females. When presented with skin lipid extracts from large and small females, a greater proportion of males displayed courtship behaviors to large female extracts. This demonstrates that there is an intrinsic property of the female skin lipids that allows males to differentiate among large and small females. Analysis of the sexual attractiveness pheromone revealed that the necessary variation exists for this pheromone to function as a reliable indicator to males of female body size. Specifically, we observed a strong correlation between female snout–vent length and the relative concentration of saturated and ω-9 cis-unsaturated methyl ketones composing the pheromone; smaller females expressed pheromone profiles higher in saturated methyl ketones, while larger females expressed pheromone profiles dominated by unsaturated methyl ketones. The results of this study suggest that male red-sided garter snakes utilize compositional variation in the female sexual attractiveness pheromone to differentiate among potential mates of varying size.