Royal Society Publishing

An airborne sex pheromone in snakes

R. Shine, R. T. Mason

Abstract

Most reptile sex pheromones so far described are lipid molecules too large to diffuse through the air; instead, they are detected via direct contact (tongue-flicking) with another animal's body or substrate-deposited trails, using the vomeronasal system. The only non-lipid pheromone reported in snakes involves courtship termination in red-sided gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis): males that encounter copulatory fluids cease courtship, presumably reflecting the futility of courting an already-mating female. Our field experiments at a communal den in Manitoba show that this pheromone can work via olfaction: courtship is terminated by exposure to airborne scents from mating conspecifics, and does not require direct contact (tongue-flicking). Hence, the sexual behaviour of reptiles can be affected by airborne as well as substrate-bound pheromones.

  • Received August 4, 2011.
  • Accepted September 16, 2011.
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