As aquatic adults, eastern red-spotted newts (Notophthalmus v. viridescens) are generally green with two rows of dorsal spots, which vary in number between individuals and range in colour from orange to red. The function of these spots is unknown, but it is possible that they serve as sexual ornamentations and we examined this hypothesis by testing for sexual dimorphism in spot characteristics. We used an image analysis approach that has been used previously with this and other amphibian species to compare the number, size and colour – redness (hue score) and brightness – of spots in 100 male and 100 female aquatic adult newts captured during the breeding season in Virginia. While we found no apparent sex-related differences in the numbers of spots, and only a minor difference in spot sizes, we discovered that adult male red-spotted newts had significantly redder and more brightly coloured dorsal spots than did females. We also found that spot brightness is positively associated with body size. As male red-spotted newts entice females to mate in part with a highly visual display (the “hula dance”), the sexual dimorphism in spot colour we found could be associated with this display. Our results, taken together with current knowledge on the carotenoid pigments behind the red spot colour, suggest a role for spot coloration in the mating system of N. v. viridescens that should be examined further and considered in other studies of mate choice. In a more general sense, this discovery also leads us to question if this phenomenon is present in other amphibian species previously thought to be “monomorphic”.

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Copyright © 2008 The British Herpetological Society. This article first appeared in Herpetological Journal 18 (November 2008): 83-89.

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