Body size plasticity and local variation of relative head and body size sexual dimorphism in garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis)


*All correspondence to present address: Mark A. Krause, Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences, University of Portland, 5000 Willamette Boulevard, Portland, OR 97203, U.S.A.


For snakes, prey size and sex are two possible determinants of head and body size. In garter snakes Thamnophis sirtalis, females are generally longer and have greater body weights than males, and also have larger relative head sizes, which may facilitate foraging success. The selective pressures that account for sexual size dimorphism in garter snakes have not been unequivocally demonstrated. In this study, the body (length and mass) and head (head length, head width, jaw length, inter-ocular distance) sizes of garter snakes inhabiting two nearby but ecologically dissimilar sites with different types of available prey were compared. Overall, the adult female snakes were larger and had greater relative head sizes than males. Males from the two sites did not differ significantly in body or head sizes. However, the mean body length and mass of females from a site where vertebrates are included in the diet were greater than that of females feeding almost exclusively on earthworms. There were also significant site differences in all four head measurements in females, although the direction of the difference varied by site. Diet-induced morphological plasticity is well documented and was evident in this study, although the relative roles of genotype, ontogeny, and competing selective forces in the expression of such plasticity can only be ascertained through future experimental studies.