Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 204, Issue 3, pp 295–303 | Cite as

Do free-ranging rattlesnakes use thermal cues to evaluate prey?

  • Hannes A. SchraftEmail author
  • Colin Goodman
  • Rulon W. Clark
Original Paper


Rattlesnakes use infrared radiation to detect prey animals such as small mammals and lizards. Because ectotherm locomotor performance depends on temperature, rattlesnakes could use prey temperature to evaluate the potential of lizards to evade attacks. Here, we tested whether hunting rattlesnakes use infrared information to (1) detect and (2) evaluate prey before attack. We expected thermal contrast between prey and background to be the best predictor of predatory behaviour under the prey detection hypothesis, and absolute prey temperature under the prey evaluation hypothesis. We presented lizard carcasses of varying temperatures to free-ranging sidewinder rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerastes) and scored behavioural responses as a function of thermal contrast, absolute lizard temperature, and light level. Thermal contrast and light level were the most salient predictors of snake behaviour. Snakes were more likely to respond to lizards and/or respond at greater distances at night and when thermal contrast was high, supporting the known prey detection function of infrared sensing. Absolute lizard temperature was not an important predictor of snake behaviour; thus, we found no evidence for temperature-based prey evaluation. Infrared sensing is still poorly understood in ecologically relevant contexts; future research will test whether rattlesnakes learn to evaluate prey based on temperature with experience.


Infrared Locomotor performance Predator–prey interaction Temperature-dependence Thermography 



We thank Abigail Rosenberg and the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma for logistical support and providing access to field sites and housing. Jessica Tingle, Jessica Ryan, Drew Steele, Malachi Whitford, Grace Freymiller, and Katherine Phillips provided field support. Shannon Whelan, George Bakken, and two anonymous reviewers offered valuable comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. The San Diego State University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approved all methods (APF 16-08-014C). This study was funded by San Diego State University, the Animal Behavior Society, and the San Diego Chapter of the Explorer’s Club.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Supplementary material

359_2017_1239_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (2.1 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 2170 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologySan Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA
  2. 2.Graduate Group in Ecology, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology, and BehaviorUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  3. 3.Environmental Science and Policy ProgramUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

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