Hypervariable genetic markers have revolutionized studies of kinship, behavioral ecology, and population biology in vertebrate groups such as birds, but their use in snakes remains limited. To illustrate the value of such markers in snakes, we review studies that have used microsatellite DNA loci to analyze local population differentiation and parentage in snakes. Four ecologically distinct species of snakes all show evidence for differentiation at small spatial scales (2-15 km), but with substantial differences among species. This result highlights how genetic analysis can reveal hidden aspects of the natural history of difficult-to-observe taxa, and it raises important questions about the ecological factors that may contribute to restricted gene flow. A 3-year study of genetic parentage in marked populations of the northern water snake showed that (1) participation in mating aggregations was a poor predictor of genetic-based measures of reproductive success; (2) multiple paternity was high, yet there was no detectable fitness advantage to multiple mating by females; and (3) the opportunity for selection was far higher in males than in females due to a larger variance in male reproductive success, and yet this resulted in no detectable selection on morphological variation in males. Thus genetic markers have provided accurate measures of individual reproductive success in this species, an important step toward resolving the adaptive significance of key features including multiple paternity and reversed sexual size dimorphism. Overall these studies illustrate how genetic analyses of snakes provide previously unobtainable information of long-standing interest to behavioral ecologists.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Molecular Biology