Sexual dimorphism, reproductive biology, and food habits of two species of African filesnakes (Mehelya, Colubridae)



The ecology and general biology of African snakes remains virtually unstudied, even in highly distinctive species such as the filesnakes (genera Mehelya and Gonionotophis). Our measurements and dissections of preserved specimens provided information on body sizes, sexual dimorphism in size and bodily proportions, clutch sizes, and food habits of two Mehelya species. In both M. capensis and M. nyassae, females attain sexual maturity at the same size as conspecific males, but grow to much larger sizes. Mehelya capensis displays extreme differences in body shape between males and females at the same body length: females have longer and wider heads, thicker bodies, and larger eyes (relative to both head length and head width) than do conspecific males. Dimorphism in body proportions is less marked in M. nyassae. Female reproductive cycles are seasonal in M. capensis, and clutch sizes are larger in this species than in its smaller congener (5-11 eggs in M. capensis, 2-6 eggs in M. nyassae).

Contrary to popular wisdom, Mehelya are not specialized ophiophages. Mehelya nyassae feeds primarily upon lygosomatine skinks, including many fossorial taxa. Mehelya capensis has a broader diet, feeding on a wide variety of terrestrial lizards (especially agamids and gerrhosaurids) and snakes. Toads are also common prey items. The diversity of prey types taken by M. capensis suggests that these snakes may use ambush predation as well as active foraging. Mehelya is strongly convergent with Asian elapids of the genus Bungarus in its morphology (triangular body shape; powerful jaws; visible interstitial skin), behaviour (nocturnality; reluctance to bite when harassed), and diet (feeding on elongate reptiles, including snakes). Observations of preyhandling and ingestion by captive snakes are needed to clarify possible selective forces for the evolution of the unusual traits shared by these taxa.