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Keywords:

  • chemoreception;
  • tongue;
  • chemical trails;
  • prey and mate searching;
  • reptile;
  • snake;
  • tropotaxis;
  • vomeronasal organs

Abstract

Sexual dimorphisms – phenotypic dissimilarities between the sexes – are common and widespread among plants and animals, and classical examples include differences in body size, colour, shape, ornamentation and behaviour. In general, sexual dimorphisms are hypothesized to evolve by way of sexual selection acting on one sex through priority-of-access for sexual partners via mate choice and/or intra-sexual competition. In snakes, males are the mate-searching sex and one form of sexual selection involves male–male competition in locating females by following pheromone trails using their forked tongues, the structure used to sample environmental chemicals for transduction in the vomeronasal chemosensory system (VNS). Based on several lines of empirical evidence, increased tongue forking (bifurcation) in snakes (and some lizard taxa) appears to enhance chemical trail-following abilities through tropotaxis (the simultaneous comparison of stimulus intensities on two sides of the body) and thus aids in prey location and mate searching in males. We predicted that male copperheads, Agkistrodon contortrix, a North American pitviper, should have more deeply forked tongues than females owing to male–male competition for priority-of-access to widely dispersed females during the mating seasons. We examined formalin-fixed, ethanol-preserved museum specimens of adult A. contortrix for sexual size dimorphism (SSD) of the tongue. Tongue dimensions showed differences indicative of SSD, and the degree of bifurcation (i.e. mean tine length) was significantly greater in males. Various structures of the VNS and associated regions (e.g. muscles) in some vertebrate taxa show sexual dimorphism, but our study is the first to document dimorphism in the tongue of a tetrapod vertebrate.