Skinks get the message when snakes are about

By Robert Uhlig (Daily Telegraph)

SkinkTHE old wives' tale that a newborn baby will be frightened of things that scared its mother during pregnancy may have a ring of truth, scientists have reported.

Evolutionary biologists found a suggestion of the phenomenon in Australian skinks, a type of lizard. Newborn skinks reacted more strongly to their first whiff of a lizard-eating snake if their mother had smelled the same snake when pregnant.

"It certainly surprised the hell out of us," said Professor Richard Shine at the University of Sydney. He had intended to study how a female lizard's food supply and basking opportunity affected its offspring.

To do this, he used a small skink, Pseudemoia pagenstecheri, which instead of laying eggs, bears live young in the same way as mammals. The scientists decided to expose 20 pregnant skinks to the odour of a skink-eating snake by dragging live snakes through their cages twice weekly.

To their surprise, the offspring of these females flicked their tongues more and were more likely to flee when first exposed to snake scent. They were also heavier and had longer tails than those whose mothers had not been frightened by the snake odour, according to New Scientist.

The researchers do not know what causes the changes, which might be just an accidental consequence of maternal stress, which can upset developmental patterns in mammals.

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Last Updated: February 17, 2007