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Climate affects embryonic development in a viviparous snake, Vipera aspis


  • Olivier Lourdais,

  • Richard Shine,

  • Xavier Bonnet,

  • Michaël Guillon,

  • Guy Naulleau

O. Lourdais, X. Bonnet, M. Guillon and G. Naulleau, Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, CNRS, FR-79360, Villiers en Bois, France ( OL also at: Conseil Général des Deux Sèvres, rue de l'abreuvoir, FR-79000 Niort, France. – XB and R. Shine, School of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Sydney, Australia.


Climatic conditions during embryonic development can exert profound and long-term effects on many types of organisms, but most previous research on this topic has focussed on endothermic vertebrates (birds and mammals). Although viviparity in ectothermic taxa allows the reproducing female to buffer ambient thermal variation for her developing offspring, even an actively thermoregulating female may be unable to provide optimal incubation regimes in severe weather conditions. We examined the extent to which fluctuations in natural thermal conditions during pregnancy affect reproduction in a temperate viviparous snake, the aspic viper (Vipera aspis). Data gathered from a long term field study demonstrated that ambient thermal conditions influenced (1) female body temperatures and (2) gestation length, embryo viability, and offspring phenotypes. Interestingly, thermal conditions during each of the three months of gestation affected different aspects of reproduction. Hotter weather early in gestation (June) increased ventral scale counts (=number of body segments) of neonates; hotter weather mid-gestation (July) hastened development and thus the date of parturition; and hotter weather late in gestation (August) reduced the incidence of stillborn neonates. The population that we studied is close to the northern limit of the species’ range, and embryonic thermal requirements may prevent Vipera aspis from extending into cooler conditions further north.