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Feeding Experience Modifies the Assessment of Ambush Sites by the Timber Rattlesnake, a Sit-and-Wait Predator

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To effectively ambush prey, sit-and-wait predators must locate sites where profitable prey are likely to return. One means by which predators evaluate potential ambush sites is by recognizing high-use areas through chemical cues deposited inadvertently by their prey. However, it is unknown whether ambush predators can use chemical cues associated with past prey items in the assessment of potential ambush sites. I examined selection of ambush sites by timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) exposed to trails made from chemical extracts of the integument of various prey species. I evaluated the role of feeding experience in ambush site selection by comparing the behavior of timber rattlesnakes before and after feeding experience with different sized prey items. Timber rattlesnakes are more likely to select ambush sites adjacent to chemical trails from prey with which they have had feeding experience, but only those fed relatively large prey showed an increase in responsiveness. Increased responsiveness after feeding experience was exhibited in experiments using integumentary extracts of mammals (the natural prey of timber rattlesnakes), but not in those using extracts of fish. These results indicate that ambush predators may learn to recognize chemicals on the integument of profitable food items, and use that experience when subsequently selecting ambush sites. Additionally, these findings provide evidence that size-dependent predation by snakes may be, in some species, a result of active prey selection.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2004-06-01

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