• compost;
  • development;
  • embryo;
  • incubation;
  • manure heap;
  • phenotype;
  • reptiles;
  • thermal fluctuation

Temperature has a major influence on the rate of embryonic development in ectothermic organisms. While incubation experiments unambiguously show that constant high temperature accelerates development and shortens embryonic life, studies on the effect of fluctuating temperatures have generated contradictory results. Grass snakes (Natrix natrix) occur at latitudes and altitudes that are unusually cool for an oviparous reptile. In these cool climates females typically lay their eggs in heat-generating anthropogenic microhabitats that provide either a highly fluctuating (compost piles) or a relatively constant (manure heaps) thermal nesting environment. A laboratory experiment with fluctuating and constant incubation temperatures mimicking those recorded in such nests in the field showed that this nest-site dichotomy influences the development of the embryos, and the morphology and locomotor performance of the hatchlings. The incubation period increased at fluctuating temperatures and the fact that the rate of embryonic development showed a decelerating pattern with temperature suggests that periods of low temperature had a relatively larger influence on average development than periods of high temperature. Our study demonstrates how a dichotomy in the nesting environments available to female grass snakes in cool climates can affect variation in the duration of the incubation period and offspring phenotypes in ways that may have consequences for fitness. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, ••, ••–••.