Tongues give clues to snake sex secrets

June 19, 2018, Freshscience
Christabel measured and dissected dugites found as roadkill for her research.  Credit: Dr Bill Bateman, Curtin University

For the Spotted Brown Snake (or dugite), size doesn't matter when it comes to sex.

Perth researchers found no difference between the lengths of tines (the two sides of the tongue's 'fork') between male and female dugites—giving clues as to the snakes' behaviour.

"Initially we were surprised, because while sexual differences between snakes tend to be quite subtle, previous studies have shown that male North American pit vipers have longer tongue tines than females," says Christabel Khoo, who conducted the study as part of her Ph.D. at Curtin University.

"We think the differences can be explained by the two snakes' lifestyles. North American pit vipers are sedate ambush predators, and males are only active during the breeding season when they seek out females. In contrast, dugites of both sexes are active all year round."

Snakes use their forked tongues to collect chemicals from their environment, with a special organ in the roof of their mouths that interprets these chemicals as smells. The tines of the fork take samples from two places, allowing them to compare the signals and decide the direction the smell is coming from—helping them track prey or mates.

"This kind of research is important in helping us understand mating habits, and for informing conservation strategies for endangered reptiles," Christabel says.

Next, the team plans to investigate sexual differences in tine lengths in other reptiles with forked tongues, including other species, and lizards such as goannas.

Christabel presented the work at the Australian Society of Herpetologists Conference and the West Australian Herpetological Society Expo in 2017, and the research has been submitted to the Journal of Zoology.

Explore further: Why do snakes flick their tongues?

Related Stories

Why do snakes flick their tongues?

July 31, 2014

Many people think a snake's forked tongue is creepy. Every so often, the snake waves it around rapidly, then retracts it. Theories explaining the forked tongues of snakes have been around for thousands of years. Aristotle ...

Recommended for you

Scientists study puncture performance of cactus spines

November 20, 2018

Beware the jumping cholla, Cylindropuntia fulgida. This shrubby, branching cactus will—if provoked by touching—anchor its splayed spines in the flesh of the offender. The barbed spines grip so tightly that a segment of ...

Traffic noise stresses out frogs, but some have adapted

November 20, 2018

Frogs from noisy ponds near highways have altered stress and immune profiles compared to frogs from more quiet ponds—changes that reduce the negative effects of traffic noise on the amphibians. According to a new study, ...

The taming of the dog, cow, horse, pig and rabbit

November 20, 2018

Research at the Earlham Institute into one of the 'genetic orchestra conductors', microRNAs, sheds light on our selectively guided evolution of domestic pets and farmyard animals such as dogs and cows.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.