Plasticity in nest site choice behavior in response to hydric conditions in a reptile

J. Sean Doody, Jessica McGlashan, Harry Fryer, Lizzy Coleman, Hugh James, Kari Soennichsen, David Rhind, Simon Clulow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
42 Downloads (Pure)


Natural selection is expected to select for and maintain maternal behaviors associated with choosing a nest site that promotes successful hatching of offspring, especially in animals that do not exhibit parental care such as reptiles. In contrast to temperature effects, we know little about how soil moisture contributes to successful hatching and particularly how it shapes nest site choice behavior in nature. The recent revelation of exceptionally deep nesting in lizards under extreme dry conditions underscored the potential for the hydric environment in shaping the evolution of nest site choice. But if deep nesting is an adaptation to dry conditions, is there a plastic component such that mothers would excavate deeper nests in drier years? We tested this hypothesis by excavating communal warrens of a large, deep-nesting monitor lizard (Varanus panoptes), taking advantage of four wet seasons with contrasting rainfall amounts. We found 75 nests during two excavations, including 45 nests after a 4-year period with larger wet season rainfall and 30 nests after a 4-year period with smaller wet season rainfall. Mothers nested significantly deeper in years associated with drier nesting seasons, a finding best explained as a plastic response to soil moisture, because differences in both the mean and variance in soil temperatures between 1 and 4 m deep are negligible. Our data are novel for reptiles in demonstrating plasticity in maternal behavior in response to hydric conditions during the time of nesting. The absence of evidence for other ground-nesting reptile mothers adjusting nest depth in response to a hydric-depth gradient is likely due to the tradeoff between moisture and temperature with changing depth; most ground-nesting reptile eggs are deposited at depths of ~ 2–25 cm—nesting deeper within or outside of that range of depths to achieve higher soil moisture would also generally create cooler conditions for embryos that need adequate heat for successful development. In contrast, extreme deep nesting in V. panoptes allowed us to disentangle temperature and moisture. Broadly, our data suggest that ground-nesting reptiles can assess soil moisture and respond by adjusting the depth of the nest, but may not, due to the cooling effect of nesting deeper. Our results, within the context of previous work, provide a more complete picture of how mothers can promote hatching success through adjustments in nest site choice behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Article number16048
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes


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