Effect of prey availability on growth-rate trajectories of an aquatic predator, the viperine snake <em>Natrix maura</em>
The energy gained by an organism is used for maintenance, growth and reproduction. In habitats with limited resources, these processes compete for available energy and may induce intraspecific variation in body condition, growth trajectories and reproductive output. We tested the hypothesis that populations exposed to higher food availability are able to grow faster, and attain larger body sizes in the viperine snake (Natrix maura). We estimated snake age by counting growth lines in the skull’s ectopterygoid bone, and compared body size growth curves from three Iberian populations exposed to temporal variation of food resources availability. In the three localities, and in males and females, the growth curves followed a quadratic function that tended to an asymptotic value as growth slowed down. Growth curves showed slower growth rates and an early asymptote for males, in agreement with the reverse sexual dimorphism in body size of this species. We also detected interpopulational differences, with the Ebro Delta population exhibiting slower growth rates and smaller asymptotic body size in both sexes. This population inhabits rice fields with an artificial waterflow cycle, a condition that implies a shorter period of prey availability for snakes, compared to the other two populations, where prey is available for longer periods of time. Moreover, high proportion of snakes with tail breakage in this population indicated high predation pressure. These environmental conditions suggest that food availability and predation pressure may be concurrently acting to produce smaller N. maura at the Ebro Delta than at the other two populations.