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Ventral and sub-caudal scale counts are associated with macrohabitat use and tail specialization in viperid snakes

Abstract

Viperids are a species rich clade of snakes that vary greatly in both morphology and ecology. Many species in the family express tail specializations used for defensive warnings, prey lures, and stability during locomotion and striking. To examine the relationships among ecology, behavior, and vertebral number in the family Viperidae, morphological data (maximum total length and the number of pre-cloacal and caudal vertebrae), macrohabitat use, and tail specialization for 157 viperids were gleaned from published sources. A composite tree topology was constructed from multiple published viperid phylogenies for independent contrasts analysis. The number of vertebrae was strongly correlated with the total length of the snake. Results of both non-phylogenetic and phylogenetically corrected analysis showed that macrohabitat use did not strongly influence total snake length. However, the number of vertebrae per unit length did vary among species according to macrohabitat. Specifically, vertebral density increased with increasing arboreality. Overall, viperids showed a positive correlation between the number of caudal and pre-cloacal vertebrae, but separately rattlesnakes had a significant negative correlation. Species with prehensile tails and those that caudal lure had the most caudal vertebrae. The increased caudal segments of prehensile and luring tails likely improve performance when grasping small vegetation for support or imitating invertebrate prey. These results illustrate that vertebral number is a primary characteristic involved in the diversification of viper species and ecology.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank J. Albert, N. Haertle, J. Meik, and B. Moon for comments on this project and manuscript.

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Correspondence to Paul M. Hampton.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 1.

Table 1 Maximum total body length, median presacral vertebral number and median caudal vertebral number for viperids used in this study

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Hampton, P.M. Ventral and sub-caudal scale counts are associated with macrohabitat use and tail specialization in viperid snakes. Evol Ecol 25, 531–546 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10682-010-9432-z

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Keywords

  • Caudal luring
  • Ecomorphology
  • Rattle
  • Snake
  • Tail
  • Vertebrae
  • Viperidae