Contextual Flexibility: Reassessing the Effects of Prey Size and Status on Prey Restraint Behaviour of Macrostomate Snakes


Rita S. Mehta, Section of Evolution and Ecology, University of California, Storer Hall, One Shields Ave, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


Contextual flexibility in prey restraint behaviour has been documented in advanced snakes (Colubroidea), but the degree of flexibility for earlier snake lineages has been largely unstudied. We document the prey restraint behaviour of five snake species belonging to three early macrostomate lineages: Loxocemidae, Erycinae and Boidae. Species from these lineages were chosen for this study because they utilize similar prey resources but exhibit different ecological habits that may have important consequences on prey restraint behaviour. Snakes (n = 27) were studied in a systematic experimental design assessing the effects of mouse size (small and large) and status (live and dead) across a total of 216 feeding trials. Loxocemus and Erycine snakes were highly flexible in their prey restraint behaviour patterns and these varied across prey category. Individuals of Boa constrictor exhibited very little contextual flexibility in feeding behaviour, confirming earlier reports. Flexibility in prey restraint behaviour corresponded with loop application pattern, whether the snake bent laterally or ventrally when forming a loop around prey. Our study is the first to show that early macrostomate snakes exhibit flexible prey restraint behaviours. Thus, our results suggest that flexibility in predatory behaviour may be more widespread across snake taxa than previously thought and we offer hypotheses for the observed interspecific differences in snake feeding behaviour.