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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