Genotyping validates photo-identification by the head scale pattern in a large population of the European adder (Vipera berus)

Dirk Bauwens, Katja Claus, Joachim Mergeay

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Abstract Capture-mark-recapture procedures are a basic tool in population studies and require that individual animals are correctly identified throughout their lifetime. A method that has become more and more popular uses photographic records of natural markings, such as pigmentation pattern and scalation configuration. As with any other marking tool, the validity of the photographic identification technique should be evaluated thoroughly. Here, we report on a large-scale double-marking study in which European adders (Vipera berus) were identified by both microsatellite genetic markers and by the pattern of head scalation. Samples that were successfully genotyped for all nine loci yielded 624 unique genotypes, which matched on a one-to-one basis with the individual assignments based on the head scalation pattern. Thus, adders considered as different individuals by their genotypes were also identified as different individuals by their head scalation pattern, and vice versa. Overall, variation in the numbers, shape, and arrangement of the head scales enabled us to distinguish among 3200+ photographed individual snakes. Adders that were repeatedly sequenced genetically over intervals of 2?3 years showed no indication whatsoever for a change in the head scale pattern. Photographic records of 900+ adders that were recaptured over periods of up to 12 years showed a very detailed and precise match of the head scale characteristics. These natural marks are thus robust over time and do not change during an individual's lifetime. With very low frequency (0.3%), we detected small changes in scalation that were readily discernible and could be attributed to physical injury or infection. Our study provides a conclusive validation for the use of photo-identification by head scale patterns in the European adder.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)2985-2992
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 14-Feb-2018

Thematic list

  • Species and biotopes

EWI Biomedical sciences

  • B003-ecology

Taxonomic list

  • reptiles (Reptilia)


  • Natura 2000


  • genetic technologies


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