- Agricultural and Biological Sciences; Environmental Science
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Aposematic organisms can show phenotypic variability across their distributional ranges. The ecological advantages of this variability have been scarcely studied in vipers. We explored this issue in Vipera seoanei, a species that exhibits five geographically structured dorsal colour phenotypes across Northern Iberia: two zigzag patterned (Classic and Cantabrica), one dorsal-strip patterned (Bilineata), one even grey (Uniform), and one melanistic (Melanistic). We compared predation rates (raptors and mammals) on plasticine models resembling each colour phenotype in three localities. Visual modelling techniques were used to infer detectability (i.e. conspicuousness) of each model type for visually guided predators (i.e. diurnal raptors). We hypothesize that predation rates will be lower for the two zigzag models (aposematism hypothesis) and that models with higher detectability would show higher predation rates (detectability hypothesis). Classic and Bilineata models were the most conspicuous, while Cantabrica and Uniform were the less. Melanistic presented an intermediate conspicuousness. Predation rate was low (3.24% of models) although there was variation in attack frequency among models. Zigzag models were scarcely predated supporting the aposematic role of the zigzag pattern in European vipers to reduce predation (aposematism hypothesis). From the non-zigzag models, high predation occurred on Bilineata and Melanistic models, and low on Uniform models, partially supporting our detectability hypothesis. These results suggest particular evolutionary advantages for non-zigzag phenotypes such as better performance of Melanistic phenotypes in cold environments or better crypsis of Uniform phenotypes. Polymorphism in V. seoanei may respond to a complex number of forces acting differentially across an environmental gradient.