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Diet divergence, jaw size and scale counts in two neighbouring populations of tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus)

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Large snakes usually possess a higher number of scales to cover their larger bodies and their larger heads. It has been suggested that a diet based on large prey items also favours the development of scale number because the skin would be more extensible and would enable easier swallowing of voluminous prey. A recent study, however, suggested that although body size positively influences scale count in snakes, diet is probably unimportant (Shine, 2002). We took advantage of a natural experiment that separated two neighbouring and genetically indistinguishable populations of tiger snakes in the vicinity of Perth, Western Australia. In one population, situated on a small coastal Island (Carnac Island), snakes feed primarily on seagull chicks (large prey). In the second population, located on the mainland (Herdsman Lake), snakes feed mostly on frogs (small prey). Carnac Island snakes possess more scales (labial and mid-body rows) and larger relative jaw lengths compared with Herdsman Lake snakes. Although preliminary, these data suggest that tiger snakes, whose many populations show contrasted feeding habits, are suitable models to test the "dietary habits / scale count" hypothesis.


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