James R. Stewart, Rebecca A. Pyles, Kaitlyn A. Mathis, and Tom W. Ecay
The mineralized eggshell of Reptilia was a major innovation in the evolution of the amniotic egg. Inorganic components strengthen the eggshell and are a potential source of nutrients to developing embryos. Embryos of oviparous reptiles do extract calcium from eggshells but vary interspecifically in exploitation of this resource. The pattern of embryonic calcium nutrition of the corn snake, Pantherophis guttatus, is similar to a diversity of squamate species: embryos obtain most calcium from yolk, yet also mobilize calcium from the eggshell. We tested the hypothesis that embryonic development is not dependent on eggshell calcium by manipulating calcium availability. We peeled away the outer calcareous layer of the eggshell of recently oviposited eggs; control eggs were left intact. Eggs were sampled periodically and calcium content of egg compartments (embryo, yolk, eggshell) was measured. We also analyzed skeletal development and size of hatchlings. There was no difference in survivorship or length of incubation between treatments. However, hatchlings from intact eggs contained more calcium and were larger in mass and length than siblings from peeled eggs. There were no observable differences in ossification but hatchlings from intact eggs had larger skeletal elements (skull, vertebrae). Our results indicate that mobilization of eggshell calcium is not a requirement for embryonic development of P. guttatus and that embryos augment yolk calcium by extracting calcium from the eggshell. This pattern of embryonic calcium nutrition would favor embryos with a greater capacity to mobilize calcium from the eggshell by promoting growth and thereby potentially enhancing hatchling fitness.