Gene flow is fundamental to evolutionary processes but knowledge about movements of individuals and their offspring necessary for gene flow is scant. We investigated potential ecological components of genetic connectivity within a population of black rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta) by radio-tracking 82 individuals. Because adult black rat snakes are highly faithful to their hibernaculum, gene flow between hibernaculum populations has to occur through mating between members of different hibernacula or through juvenile dispersal. The present study was the first to assess the spatial dispersion of a complete network of hibernacula. The mean distance between the nearest-neighbour hibernacula was 811 m, which was less than the mean distances that reproductive males and females were found from their hibernacula during the mating season. Estimates of maximum distances individuals were from their hibernacula during the mating season indicated that, on average, a female was likely to mate with males that came from two hibernacula away from the female's own hibernaculum. Both males and females appeared to contribute actively to gene flow by moving more and increasing their distance from their hibernacula during the mating season. In addition, on average, females nested closer to a hibernaculum other than the one they attended, thereby potentially increasing the likelihood that their offspring would join hibernacula other than their mothers'. Thus, spatial and movement patterns of male and female black rat snakes are consistent with genetic evidence of extensive out-breeding among local hibernaculum populations.
Snakes were captured around fences put around hibernacula, radio tracking