It is a well-known phenomenon that islands can support populations of gigantic or dwarf forms of mainland conspecifics, but the variety of explanatory hypotheses for this phenomenon have been difficult to disentangle. The highly venomous Australian tiger snakes (genus Notechis) represent a well-known and extreme example of insular body size variation. They are of special interest because there are multiple populations of dwarfs and giants and the age of the islands and thus the age of the tiger snake populations are known from detailed sea level studies. Most are 5000-7000 years old and all are less than 10,000 years old. Here we discriminate between two competing hypotheses with a molecular phylogeography dataset comprising approximately 4800 bp of mtDNA and demonstrate that populations of island dwarfs and giants have evolved five times independently. In each case the closest relatives of the giant or dwarf populations are mainland tiger snakes, and in four of the five cases, the closest relatives are also the most geographically proximate mainland tiger snakes. Moreover, these body size shifts have evolved extremely rapidly and this is reflected in the genetic divergence between island body size variants and mainland snakes. Within south eastern Australia, where populations of island giants, populations of island dwarfs, and mainland tiger snakes all occur, the maximum genetic divergence is only 0.38%. Dwarf tiger snakes are restricted to prey items that are much smaller than the prey items of mainland tiger snakes and giant tiger snakes are restricted to seasonally available prey items that are up three times larger than the prey items of mainland tiger snakes. We support the hypotheses that these body size shifts are due to strong selection imposed by the size of available prey items, rather than shared evolutionary history, and our results are consistent with the notion that adaptive plasticity also has played an important role in body size shifts. We suggest that plasticity displayed early on in the occupation of these new islands provided the flexibility necessary as the island's available prey items became more depauperate, but once the size range of available prey items was reduced, strong natural selection followed by genetic assimilation worked to optimize snake body size. The rate of body size divergence in haldanes is similar for dwarfs (h(g) = 0.0010) and giants (h(g) = 0.0020-0.0025) and is in line with other studies of rapid evolution. Our data provide strong evidence for rapid and repeated morphological divergence in the wild due to similar selective pressures acting in different directions.
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