Wednesday, April 23, 2014

[Herpetology • 2014] Mating Systems, Reproductive Success, and Sexual Selection in Secretive Species: A Case Study of the Western Diamond-Backed Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox


Figure 1. Sexual behavior in Crotalus atrox.
(a) Pair of C. atrox in coitus. Unknown male (left) with female CA-3, September 13, 2001.
Photo: Roger Repp. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090616.g001

Abstract
Long-term studies of individual animals in nature contribute disproportionately to our understanding of the principles of ecology and evolution. Such field studies can benefit greatly from integrating the methods of molecular genetics with traditional approaches. Even though molecular genetic tools are particularly valuable for species that are difficult to observe directly, they have not been widely adopted. Here, we used molecular genetic techniques in a 10-year radio-telemetric investigation of the western diamond-backed rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) for an analysis of its mating system and to measure sexual selection. Specifically, we used microsatellite markers to genotype 299 individuals, including neonates from litters of focal females to ascertain parentage using full-pedigree likelihood methods. We detected high levels of multiple paternity within litters, yet found little concordance between paternity and observations of courtship and mating behavior. Larger males did not father significantly more offspring, but we found evidence for size-specific male-mating strategies, with larger males guarding females for longer periods in the mating seasons. Moreover, the spatial proximity of males to mothers was significantly associated with reproductive success. Overall, our field observations alone would have been insufficient to quantitatively measure the mating system of this population of C. atrox, and we thus urge more widespread adoption of molecular tools by field researchers studying the mating systems and sexual selection of snakes and other secretive taxa.

Figure 1. Sexual behavior in Crotalus atrox.
(a) Pair of C. atrox in coitus. Unknown male (left) with female CA-3, September 13, 2001.
(b) Pair of C. atrox in courtship below a den site. The lower body and tail of unknown male is wrapped over and around tail of female CA-44 (painted rattles), March 2012.
Photo: Roger Repp. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090616.g001

Rulon W. Clark, Gordon W. Schuett, Roger A. Repp, Melissa Amarello, Charles F. Smith and Hans-Werner Herrmann. 2014. Mating Systems, Reproductive Success, and Sexual Selection in Secretive Species: A Case Study of the Western Diamond-Backed Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox. PLoS ONE. 9(3): e90616. DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090616

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