How the Sea Snake Got Its Stripes

A banded sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) is seen here off the shoreline of Wakatobi, Indonesia.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

ScienceDaily, Apr. 14, 2010

We all know that looks matter, and for snakes, a colour which works well on land has dramatically different results under water, according to a recent study by biologists from the University of Sydney.

Professor Rick Shine and Dr Adele Pile from the School of Biological Sciences have discovered a sea snake’s colouration can influence its susceptibility to algal fouling which can reduce swimming speed by up to 20 percent.

Their study, reported this month in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, sheds new light on how the transition from terrestrial to aquatic life has shaped the evolution of sea snakes.

Professor Shine said sea snakes evolved from venomous land snakes — such as the highly toxic tiger snake — who reinvaded the oceans around five million years ago.

“The fact that sea snakes have made the transition from terrestrial to aquatic life, makes them the perfect model to study evolution because we can compare traits between land snakes and sea snakes and hence identify selective forces unique to those habitats,” he said.

“The shift from land to water brought with it a new set of challenges, and sea snakes evolved unique physical traits which enabled them to survive in the aquatic environment — a paddle-shaped tail for swimming, valves to close their nostrils and large lungs to provide oxygen while under water.

“Another consistent attribute of sea snakes involves coloration: most are banded rather than unicoloured, blotched or striped. Fouling by algae has also been reported in several groups of sea snakes, and we wondered if maybe a snake’s colour could influence its susceptibility to this.”

To test this hypothesis, the scientists turned to a population of sea snakes in the tropical Pacific, in which members of the same species ranged from jet black to brightly black-and-white banded, and many patterns in between. Over a four-year period, the researchers examined free ranging individuals and found that black snakes supported significantly more algal cover than black-and-white snakes.

“Once we knew there was a relationship between a snake’s colour and the amount of algal fouling, the next step was to determine if a snake’s dark colour was the actual cause of the higher algal levels,” Professor Shine said.

To do this, the researchers suspended plastic snake models — in black, white and black-and-white — in mid water and scored the amount of algal colonisation over the subsequent days. The results showed that colour directly affects the amount of algal growth, with black surfaces attracting the most algae, followed by black-and-white, and white the least.

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