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Diel Cycles in Chemosensory Behaviors of Free-Ranging Rattlesnakes Lying in Wait for Prey


Matthew A. Barbour, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada.


The sensory ecology of foragers is fundamentally influenced by changes in environmental conditions such as ambient light. Changes in ambient light may hinder the effectiveness of particular senses (e.g., impaired vision at night), but many predators rely on multiple sensory systems and may continue to forage despite changes in light availability. Exactly how predator behaviors and sensory systems compensate under changes in light availability in the field is not well understood. We used radio telemetry and portable video surveillance cameras to quantify the sit-and-wait chemosensory foraging behavior of free-ranging red diamond (Crotalus ruber) and northern Pacific (Crotalus oreganus oreganus) rattlesnakes during day and night periods. The two most common behaviors we observed were chemosensory probes, a behavior we describe in detail for the first time, and mouth gapes. During chemosensory probes, rattlesnakes extend their head beyond their coil, explore the surrounding area while tongue-flicking, and subsequently return to a stationary position inside their coil. Foraging rattlesnakes probed at significantly higher rates during nocturnal vs. diurnal hours. Similarly, mouth gaping occurred during a higher percentage of nocturnal vs. diurnal hours for foraging snakes. Nearly half of all mouth gapes were followed immediately with a chemosensory probe, suggesting that mouth gaping also serves a chemosensory function in this context. Our results suggest that chemical cues play an increasingly important role in mediating rattlesnake foraging behavior at night. Examining how abiotic factors, such as light availability, influence the sensory ecology of free-ranging predators is essential for accurately characterizing their interactions with prey.