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Island Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus) Gain a ‘Head Start’ in Life: How Both Phenotypic Plasticity and Evolution Underlie Skull Shape Differences

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Abstract

Repeated island colonisation by Australian tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus) has become a model system demonstrating how prey size on islands influences a snake’s body and jaw size. Tiger snakes on islands with large prey have relatively longer jaws compared to their mainland counterparts, due to diet-induced phenotypic plasticity followed by assimilation of favourable traits. We present the first examination of the effects of diet on all skull elements that are involved in feeding, by analysing shape and size differences using CT imaging and a combination of linear measurements and three dimensional geometric morphometrics. We compared two populations of tiger snakes, one from Carnac Island, where the snakes were first introduced approximately 100 years ago, and another from Herdsman Lake on the mainland (a putative source population). Each population was divided into two groups, one was fed small prey and the other large prey. While snakes from the island exhibited relatively longer trophic bones at birth, they also had slightly slower growth rates for these elements regardless of diet. The island forms showed diet-induced plasticity within specific trophic elements, the mandible and palatopterygoid, which grew longer when the snakes were fed larger prey. Importantly, skull plasticity was expressed only after prolonged dietary stress, and was not clearly observable until the snakes approached adulthood. We hypothesize that this plastic response resulting in increased gape may be adaptive, allowing ingestion of large prey items available to adult tiger snakes on Carnac Island. In contrast, no plastic response was observed in the mainland population.

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Data Availability

All specimen data and analysis code are included in the submission as supplementary data, available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s11692-022-09591-z.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Dr Agatha Labridinis, from Adelaide Microscopy, University of Adelaide, South Australia, for assistance provided with the Skyscan 1276 microCT scanner. We are deeply grateful to Dr. Fabien Aubret for his generous assistance in the collection of the tiger snakes used in this experiment. We also thank D. Silva Fernandes and an anonymous reviewer for their useful comments that helped improve this manuscript.

Funding

This study was funded by the Australian Research Council as part of VT’s DECRA Fellowship DE180100624, a Linkage grant LP160100189 and a Discovery grant DP200102328.

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Contributions

VAT designed the study and collected the snakes, ND, JA, LA took care of their husbandry at Venom Supplies, and VAT, ND, LA, JA undertook the feeding experiment. Ammresh collected and analysed the data. Ammresh and AP, with input from all other authors, interpreted the results, prepared the figures, and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. AP and ES supervised the collection of data and analytical aspects. All authors read, edited, and approved the final version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Alessandro Palci.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

The experiments described below have been approved by the Animal Ethics Committee at the University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia (under UofA AEC Project Approval No’s S-2016–111 and S-2019–002); the collection of the tiger snakes were permitted under a ‘Fauna taking (scientific or other purposes) licence’ #FO25000008 and #FO25000008-2 from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) of Western Australia (WA); the export of the tiger snakes from WA was conducted under ‘Fauna Exporting Licence’ #EF41000039 and #EF41000231 from DBCA of WA; the import of the tiger snakes into South Australia (SA) was conducted under a ‘Permit to undertake Scientific Research’ #E26703-4 and #E26703-5 from the Department of Environment and Water of SA; all Australian legal requirements and guidelines for the care and use of animals have been followed.

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Ammresh, Sherratt, E., Thomson, V.A. et al. Island Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus) Gain a ‘Head Start’ in Life: How Both Phenotypic Plasticity and Evolution Underlie Skull Shape Differences. Evol Biol 50, 111–126 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11692-022-09591-z

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