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Antipredatory Function of Head Shape for Vipers and Their Mimics
Published: Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Author: Janne K. Valkonen et al.

by Janne K. Valkonen, Ossi Nokelainen, Johanna Mappes

Most research into the adaptive significance of warning signals has focused on the colouration and patterns of prey animals. However, behaviour, odour and body shape can also have signal functions and thereby reduce predators' willingness to attack defended prey. European vipers all have a distinctive triangular head shape; and they are all venomous. Several non-venomous snakes, including the subfamily Natricinae, commonly flatten their heads (also known as head triangulation) when disturbed. The adaptive significance of this potential behavioural mimicry has never been investigated. We experimentally tested if the triangular head shape typical of vipers offers protection against predation. We compared the predation pressure of free-ranging predators on artificial snakes with triangular-shaped heads against the pressure on replicas with narrow heads. Snakes of both head types had either zigzag patterned bodies, typical of European vipers, or plain (patternless) bodies. Plain snakes with narrower Colubrid-like heads suffered significantly higher predation by raptors than snakes with triangular-shaped heads. Head shape did not, however, have an additive effect on survival in zigzag-patterned snakes, suggesting that species which differ from vipers in colouration and pattern would benefit most from behavioural mimicry. Our results demonstrate that the triangular head shape typical of vipers can act as a warning signal to predators. We suggest that head-shape mimicry may be a more common phenomenon among more diverse taxa than is currently recognised.
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