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Do warning displays predict striking behavior in a viperid snake, the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)?

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Warning displays are defined as signals designed to intimidate predators or indicate a proclivity to fight. However, support for the idea that warning behaviors signal an intent to fight is largely based on anecdotes and isolated observations, and a complete understanding of antipredator behavior will only be achieved if specific hypotheses are experimentally tested. Herein, we tested in a North American viperid snake, the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus (Lacépède, 1789)), the hypothesis that warning displays serve as a reliable signal to potential predators that a snake will strike. The cottonmouth exhibits two stereotypical warning displays during predator confrontation, i.e., mouth gaping and tail vibrations, making it an ideal study organism to experimentally test the relationship between warning displays and defensive striking. To test this idea, we recorded the sequence of defensive behavior— gaping, tail vibrating, and striking— of cottonmouths towards a standardized predatory stimulus in the laboratory. As predicted, snakes that gaped during the trials were subsequently more likely to strike than snakes that did not. In contrast, striking behavior was independent of the occurrence of tail vibrations. Our results suggest that gaping behavior— but not tail-vibrating behavior— may provide an honest signal to would-be predators.

Les postures d’avertissement se définissent comme des signaux destinés à intimider les prédateurs ou à indiquer une inclination à livrer bataille. Cependant, l’idée que les comportements d’avertissement annoncent une intention de livrer bataille s’appuie en grande partie sur des anecdotes et des observations isolées; une compréhension entière du comportement antiprédateur ne sera possible que lorsque des hypothèses spécifiques auront pu être testées. Nous vérifions ici chez le mocassin aquatique (Agkistrodon piscivorus (Lacépède, 1789)), un vipéridé nord-américain, l’hypothèse selon laquelle les postures d’avertissement servent de messages fiables aux prédateurs potentiels que le serpent va contre-attaquer. Le mocassin aquatique utilise deux postures stéréotypées d’avertissement durant la confrontation avec un prédateur, c.-à-d. l’ouverture de la bouche et les vibrations de la queue, ce qui en fait un organisme d’étude idéal pour tester expérimentalement la relation entre les postures d’avertissement et les attaques défensives. Afin de vérifier cette idée, nous avons enregistré les séquences du comportement de défense— ouverture de la bouche, vibration de la queue et contre-attaque— chez des mocassins aquatiques en réaction à un stimulus standardisé de prédation en laboratoire. Tel que prédit, les serpents qui ouvrent la bouche durant les essais sont plus susceptibles de contre-attaquer plus tard que les serpents qui n’ouvrent pas la bouche. En revanche, le comportement de contre-attaque est indépendant des vibrations de la queue. Nos résultats laissent croire que le comportement d’ouverture de la bouche— mais non celui de vibration de la queue— constitue un signal honnête pour les prédateurs potentiels.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2007-04-01

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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