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Evolution. 2003 Feb;57(2):345-51.

Empirical evidence for an optimal body size in snakes.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama 36849-5414, USA.


The concept of optimal size has been invoked to explain patterns in body size of terrestrial mammals. However, the generality of this phenomenon has not been tested with similarly complete data from other taxonomic groups. In this study we describe three statistical patterns of body size in snakes, all of which indicate an optimal length of 1.0 m. First, a distribution of largest body lengths of 618 snake species had a single mode at 1.0 m. Second, we found a positive relationship between the size of the largest member of an island snake assemblage and island area and a negative relationship between the size of the smallest member of an island snake assemblage and island area. Best-fit lines through these data cross at a point corresponding to 1.0 m in body length, the presumed optimal size for a one-species island. Third, mainland snake species smaller than 1.0 m become larger on islands whereas those larger than 1.0 m become smaller on islands. The observation that all three analyses converge on a common body size is concordant with patterns observed in mammals and partial analyses of four other disparate animal clades. Because snakes differ so strikingly from mammals (ectotherms, gape-limited predators, elongate body shape) the concordant patterns of these two groups provide strong evidence for the evolution of an optimal body size within independent monophyletic groups. However, snakes differ from other taxonomic groups that have been studied in exhibiting a body size distribution that is not obviously skewed in either direction. We suggest that idiosyncratic features of the natural history of ectotherms allow relatively unconstrained distributions of body size whereas physiological limitations of endotherms constrain distributions of body size to a right skew.

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