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The Opportunistic Serpent: Male Garter Snakes Adjust Courtship Tactics to Mating Opportunities

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Reproductive males encounter potential mates under a range of circumstances that influence the costs, benefits or feasibility of alternative courtship tactics. Thus, males may be under strong selection to flexibly modify their behaviour. Red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) in Manitoba overwinter in communal dens, and court and mate in large aggregations in early spring. The number of males within a courting group varies considerably, as do the body sizes of both males and females. We manipulated these factors to set up replicated courtship groups in outdoor arenas, and analysed videotapes of 82 courtship trials to quantify courting behaviours of male snakes. Larger and more heavy-bodied males courted more vigorously than did their smaller, thinner-bodied rivals, and large females attracted more intense courtship. The major effect, however, involved the number of rival males competing for copulation. Males in large groups not only reduced their overall vigour of courtship, but also modified their tactics in such a way as to benefit from the courtship activities of rival males. That is, they devoted less energy to inducing female receptivity (which requires energy-expensive caudocephalic waving) and more effort to behaviour (tail-searching) that enhanced their own probability of mating if the female gaped her cloaca. This social parasitism reveals an unsuspected plasticity and complexity in the behavioural tactics of reproducing male snakes.


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