Dispersal is one of the most fundamental components of ecology. Dispersal is also particularly relevant in an era of unprecedented habitat loss and climate change. We used a unique dataset to examine dispersal in gray ratsnakes (Pantherophis spiloides). Over a decade, we marked and released >1,500 hatchlings while monitoring the population of ratsnakes over a large area (≈1,900 ha). We tested the hypotheses that dispersal should be (a) largely restricted to within the local population given previous genetic evidence of limited gene flow at greater distances and (b) male biased because male gray ratsnakes are under strong sexual selection. We recaptured 69 gray ratsnakes that had been marked as hatchlings after periods ranging from 1 day to 11 years. We found that dispersal distance increased with time, but was not significantly sex-biased, and that gray ratsnakes are extremely faithful to their communal hibernacula (only 2.8% of 497 juvenile and adult ratsnakes captured at least twice at communal hibernacula changed sites between years). Thus, dispersal is largely limited to the period from hatching until an individual joins a communal hibernaculum. Based on the spatial patterns of dispersal we observed, the most plausible explanation for dispersal is that hatchling ratsnakes disperse from their natal site to join a neighboring communal hibernaculum. Our study yielded the most reliable data on dispersal distances from birth by a snake to date.
We studied gray ratsnakes at the Queen's University Biological Station, approximately 100 km south of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The study area was located on the western shore of Lake Opinicon and was approximately 9.5 × 2.5 km (≈1,900 ha, of which ≈1,500 ha is not open water; Figure 1). Habitat in the study area is primarily deciduous forest, with marshes, beaver ponds, rocky outcrops and old hay fields providing openings in the forest canopy (Blouin-Demers & Weatherhead, 2001; Figure 1).