Testing an Adaptive Hypothesis Through Context-Dependence: Effects of Water Depth on Foraging Behaviour in Three Species of Garter Snakes


  • Alan de Queiroz

    1. Department of Environmental, Population and Organismic Biology and Museum of Natural History, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA
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Corresponding author: Alan de Queiroz, 2695 Mineral Drive, Ely, NV, 89301, USA. E-mail: tfo.dis@tnc.org


Adaptive hypotheses based on interspecific comparisons can be tested by evaluating the context-dependence of the behaviour of individual organisms. Drummond (Behaviour, 86, 1983, 1) categorized garter snake species (Thamnophis) as terrestrial–aquatic generalists or aquatic specialists based on diet and aquatic foraging behaviour. He hypothesized that the characteristic foraging behaviours of aquatic specialists – including frequent crawling on the underwater substrate and a high rate of underwater predatory strikes – are adaptations for feeding on relatively widely dispersed aquatic prey. Drummond's hypothesis based on interspecific comparisons suggests that individual snakes might change their foraging in the direction of aquatic specialist behaviour with an increase in water depth (which increases prey dispersion). I tested this prediction through laboratory observations of Mexican Pacific lowlands garter snakes (T. validus) feeding on minnows in shallow (2 cm) and deep (3–7 cm) water. Members of this species are appropriate subjects because they are ecologically intermediate between the generalists and aquatic specialists studied by Drummond, and thus might be expected to show more variation in aquatic foraging behaviour than those species. T. validus showed significantly higher frequencies of crawling on the underwater substrate and of underwater strikes in the deep water than in the shallow water; i.e. increased water depth shifted the behaviour of these snakes toward that of aquatic specialists, thus supporting Drummond's hypothesis. Individuals of an aquatic specialist species, the narrow-headed garter snake (T. rufipunctatus), showed less pronounced changes in behaviour with increased water depth. Western ribbon snakes (T. proximus), which feed primarily at the land–water interface (and are expected to act like terrestrial–aquatic generalists), typically refused to feed in deep water. Interspecific differences in underwater visual acuity may underly the behavioural differences among the three species by determining whether changes in foraging behaviour with water depth are advantageous. Information on phylogenetic relationships suggests that the facultative behaviour of T. validus may represent an intermediate stage in the evolution of aquatic specialization.