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Keywords:

  • optimal foraging;
  • reptile;
  • scaling;
  • snake;
  • trophic

Abstract

When juvenile and adult animals occur syntopically, juveniles are at a distinct performance disadvantage due to their absolutely small size. Yet, optimal foraging theory predicts that juvenile predators should feed efficiently in order to compete with adults for food, and to minimize their exposure to predators. Previous authors have suggested that one way for juvenile animals to accomplish these ecological tasks is by increasing their overall feeding performance relative to adults (compensation hypothesis). Nonetheless, only a handful of studies have tested whether juvenile animals have increased feeding performance (e.g. decreased ingestion and/or handling times relative to body size) compared with adults. We tested this hypothesis by examining the ontogeny of head dimensions and feeding performance (ingestion time and number of mandibular protractions) on fish prey for broad-banded water snakes Nerodia fasciata. Individuals were fed fish scaled in a 1:1 ratio to their head width. All head dimensions scaled with significant negative allometry versus body size, and thus smaller snakes had relatively larger heads for their body size compared with larger snakes. By contrast, most head variables (except head volume) exhibited positive allometry versus head length, demonstrating that larger snakes had larger head dimensions relative to head size compared with smaller snakes. In the performance trials, smaller snakes had worse feeding performances when feeding on similarly sized fish prey (relative to their head width) compared with larger snakes. Therefore, these data show that smaller water snakes do not compensate for their size through increased feeding performance.