Biological Invasions

, Volume 20, Issue 9, pp 2507–2516 | Cite as

Behavioural responses of an Australian colubrid snake (Dendrelaphis punctulatus) to a novel toxic prey item (the Cane Toad Rhinella marina)

  • John Llewelyn
  • Neil C. Choyce
  • Benjamin L. Phillips
  • Jonathan K. Webb
  • David J. Pearson
  • Lin Schwarzkopf
  • Richard ShineEmail author
Original Paper


The invasion of a toxic prey type can differentially affect closely related predator species. In Australia, the invasive Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) kills native anurophagous predators that cannot tolerate the toad’s toxins; but predators that are physiologically resistant (i.e., belong to lineages that entered Australia recently from Asia, where toads of other species are common) have been more resilient. In the current study, we examine the case of an Asian-derived predator lineage that relies on behavioural not physiological adaptations to deal with toads. Despite their Asian origins, Common Tree Snakes (Dendrelaphis punctulatus) are highly sensitive to toad toxins; yet this snake has not declined in abundance due to toads. We exposed captive (field-collected) snakes to toads of different sizes and ontogenetic stages, to quantify feeding responses and outcomes. Tree Snakes were less likely to attack toads than to attack native frogs, and rarely retained their hold on large toads. Tree Snakes ingested frogs of a wide range of body sizes but only ingested very small toads (< 1 g vs. up to 30 g for frogs). Behavioural responses were virtually identical between Tree Snakes from invaded versus yet-to-be-invaded areas, suggesting that preadaptation (from Asia) rather than adaptation (within Australia) is the key to successful utilisation of this novel but potentially toxic prey resource. Nonetheless, a previously-documented shift in relative head sizes of Tree Snakes coincident with toad invasion suggests that the ancestral behavioural tactic may have been reinforced by a recent morphological shift that further reduces maximal prey size, and hence the risk of fatal poisoning.


Alien species Bufo marinus Evolution Predator–prey 



We thank Brian West, Ian Eadie, Tanya Ross, Angus McNab, Bill Stewart and Justin Wright for their help collecting snakes, the James Cook University Animal Ethics Committee, and the University of Sydney Animal Care and Ethics Committee for approving all procedures.


This project was funded by the Australian Research Council (FF0561365).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate ChangeJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.School of Life and Environmental SciencesUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and AttractionsKensingtonAustralia
  4. 4.Wofford CollegeSpartanburgUSA
  5. 5.School of BioSciencesUniversity of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia
  6. 6.School of Life SciencesUniversity of Technology SydneyBroadwayAustralia

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