Niche partitioning among three snail-eating snakes revealed by dentition asymmetry and prey specialisation.

Affiliation

Chang KX(1), Huang BH(1), Luo MX(1), Huang CW(1), Wu SP(2), Nguyen HN(1)(3), Lin SM(1).
Author information:
(1)School of Life Science, National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei, Taiwan.
(2)Department of Earth and Life Science, University of Taipei, Taipei, Taiwan.
(3)Department of Zoology, Southern Institute of Ecology, Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Abstract

The level of dentition asymmetry in snail-eating snakes may reflect their prey choice and feeding efficiency on asymmetric land snails. The three species of Pareas snakes (Squamata: Pareidae) in Taiwan, which form partially sympatric distribution on the island, provide a potential case to test the hypothesis of niche partitioning and character displacement with regard to dentition asymmetry and specialisation in feeding behaviour. In this study, behavioural experiments confirmed that P. formosensis feeds exclusively on slugs, whereas P. atayal and P. komaii consumed both. However, P. atayal more efficiently preys on land snails than P. komaii, exhibiting a shorter handling time and fewer mandibular retractions. Micro-CT and ancestral character reconstruction demonstrated the lowest asymmetry in P. formosensis (the slug specialist), the highest dentition asymmetry in P. atayal (the land snail specialist) and flexibility in P. komaii (the niche switcher): increased dentition asymmetry when sympatrically distributed with the slug eater (character displacement), and decreased asymmetry when living alone (ecological niche release). Ecological niche modelling showed that the distribution of P. formosensis is associated with the presence of slugs, while that of P. atayal could be explained by the land snails. Combining the results from morphology, phylogeny, behavioural experiments and ecological niche modelling, we showed that competition in the sympatric region might have facilitated character displacement among congeners, while the absence of competition in allopatric region has led to ecological niche release.