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A wake-up call for sleepy lizards: the olfactory-driven response of Tiliqua rugosa (Reptilia: Squamata: Sauria) to smoke and its implications for fire avoidance behavior

Abstract

Many reptiles occur in landscapes that are prone to fire, yet limited information is available on the cues these species use to detect approaching fires or their immediate and preemptive behavioral responses to fire stimuli. Here, we describe the behavioral response of ten captive sleepy lizards (Tiliqua rugosa) that were inadvertently exposed to light smoke. Proportionately, significantly more individuals that were exposed to smoke exhibited increased activity, including swift pacing, repeated escape behaviors, and rapid olfactory-related tongue-flicking than those that were not exposed, which did not exhibit any such changes in activity or behaviors. Additionally, of 14 reptile species housed in the smoke-affected area, T. rugosa was the only species to exhibit a noticeable behavioral response. Since there were no visible flames, sounds of fire, reductions in light levels or visibility, or increases in temperature, these observations suggest that T. rugosa detects smoke through olfaction. Moreover, because most individuals were captive-born and, therefore, naïve to smoke or fire, this response likely represents an adaptive innate behavioral response of the species. We discuss these findings in the light of fire avoidance behavior in Tiliqua and reptiles in general.

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Acknowledgements

We wish to thank Melanie Litton and Chris Windsor for their assistance and various other courtesies, as well as Gerry Swan and the Smithsonian Institution Libraries for providing useful literature. We also thank Joel Hamilton, the Audubon Nature Institute, and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park for their support. Drew Foster, Lauren Augustine, and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful suggestions and comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Robert W. Mendyk.

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Mendyk, R.W., Weisse, A. & Fullerton, W. A wake-up call for sleepy lizards: the olfactory-driven response of Tiliqua rugosa (Reptilia: Squamata: Sauria) to smoke and its implications for fire avoidance behavior. J Ethol 38, 161–166 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10164-019-00628-z

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Keywords

  • Fire avoidance
  • Smoke detection
  • Olfaction
  • Reptiles
  • Skink
  • Tiliqua
  • Zoo