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Colour polymorphism in the sea snake Emydocephalus annulatus

Cite this dataset

Shine, Richard; Brown, Greg; Goiran, Claire (2022). Colour polymorphism in the sea snake Emydocephalus annulatus [Dataset]. Dryad.


Evolutionary theory suggests that polymorphic traits can be maintained within a single population only under specific conditions, such as negative frequency-dependent selection or heterozygote advantage. Non-venomous turtle-headed sea snakes (Emydocephalus annulatus) living in shallow bays near Noumea in New Caledonia exhibit three colour morphs: black, black-and-white banded, and an intermediate (grey-banded) morph that darkens with age. We recorded morph frequencies during 18 consecutive years of surveys, and found that the numbers of recruits (neonates plus immigrants) belonging to each morph increased in years when that morph was unusually rare in the population, and decreased when that morph was unusually common. Thus, morph frequencies are maintained by negative frequency-dependent selection. We interpret the situation as Batesian mimicry of highly venomous sea snakes (Aipysurus, Hydrophis, Laticauda) that occur in the same bays, and range in colour from black-and-white banded to grey-banded. Consistent with the idea that mimicry may protect snakes from attack by large fish and sea eagles, behavioural studies have shown that smaller fish species in these bays flee from banded snakes but attack black individuals. As predicted by theory, mimetic (banded) morphs are less common than the cryptically-coloured melanic morph.


Three adjacent populaions were surveyed annually, in January, using mark-recapture methods. The colour phase of every individual was scored into one of three categories. The analyis looks at how the relative numbers of snakes of eachcolour morph changed through time in each population.


Australian Research Council, Award: FL120100074

LabEx Corail, Award: No number