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Battles for mates and food: Intraspecific combat in island tigersnakes (Notechis ater) from southern Australia

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Male-male combat occurs in mainland populations of tigersnakes (Notechis scutatus), but authorities have disagreed as to whether or not this behaviour also occurs in island tigersnakes (Notechis ater). In this paper, we confirm that intraspecific combat frequently occurs between island tigersnakes maintained in captivity. Two different kinds of combat bouts were observed. We interpret the first type (ritualised "wrestling" matches between large adult males) as a reflection of sexual competition. This behaviour was seen in snakes from each of the island populations investigated, including Tasmania. Agonistic behaviour was exhibited by females and juveniles as well as by adult males: however, this second type of combat was always initiated by the introduction of food items to the enclosure, and incorporated vigorous biting as well as (or instead of) wrestling. Further observations, in the field as well as in captivity, are needed before we can interpret the functional significance of this behaviour. The food-induced combat may be an artifact of high densities of captive snakes, or alternatively may be exhibited in the wild also. We speculate that the high abundance of tigersnakes on some islands, and the highly clumped nature of prey resources (e.g. muttonbird chicks) in both space and time, may have favoured direct interference competition for prey items between island tigersnakes. If so, some elements of the social system of island tigersnakes may resemble the condition seen in many lizard species, rather than in other snakes.

Affiliations: 1: Biological Sciences A08 and Institute for Wildlife Research, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia


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