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Pursuit-deterrent communication between prey animals and timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus): the response of snakes to harassment displays

Abstract

A thorough understanding of communication requires an evaluation of both the signaler and receiver. Most analyses of prey–predator communication are incomplete because they examine only the behavior of the prey. Predators in these systems may be understudied because they are perceived as less tractable research subjects, due to their more cryptic hunting behaviors and secretive lifestyles. For example, research on interactions between rodents and rattlesnakes has focused on the behavior of rodent signalers, while responses of snakes have been virtually unexamined. Rattlesnakes are ambush predators, and capture rodents by waiting at foraging sites for long periods of time. In this study, I take advantage of the sedentary nature of this foraging strategy and use fixed videography to record natural encounters between timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) and their prey. Three different prey species were found to exhibit conspicuous visual displays to snakes, both when snakes were actively foraging, and when they were basking. After receiving displays, foraging snakes left their ambush sites and moved long distances before locating subsequent ambush sites, indicating that they responded to displays by abandoning attempts to ambush prey in the vicinity of signalers. This study represents the first quantitative analysis of the response of free-ranging snakes to signals from their prey, and elucidates a technique by which such quantitative data can be more easily obtained.

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Acknowledgements

For field assistance, I thank R. Corneau, A. Smith, and J. Cancalosi. For aid with surgical techniques, I thank H. K. Reinert. For financial support, I thank the Kieckhefer Adirondack Fellowship and the National Science Foundation (DDIG 0308919). This manuscript was greatly improved by comments from K. L. Rypien, K. K. Adler, H. W. Greene, and two anonymous reviewers. These experiments comply with all laws of the United States, and were approved by Cornell University's Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC Protocol No. 99-60-03)

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Correspondence to Rulon W. Clark.

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Communicated by P. J. Wheatherhead

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Clark, R.W. Pursuit-deterrent communication between prey animals and timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus): the response of snakes to harassment displays. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 59, 258–261 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-005-0032-9

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Keywords

  • Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
  • Pursuit-deterrent signal
  • Predator–prey communication
  • Anti-predator display
  • Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus)
  • Gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)