Ambushing prey may make snakes vulnerable

Some species die out after their habitat is disturbed while others continue to thrive -- the big question is why? New research shows that part of the answer for threatened Australian snakes is that they ambush their prey instead of hunting actively. This work may help conservationists identify at-risk snakes before it's too late.

Currently, "declines may be difficult to assess until they have progressed to the point where remedial actions are difficult or impossible," say Bob Reed, who did this work while at the University of Sydney in Australia and is now at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina, and Rick Shine of the University of Sydney in Australia in the April issue of Conservation Biology.

Australia has a rich diversity of terrestrial reptiles -- about 700 species compared to fewer than 250 species in the U.S., which is about the same size. Most Australian reptiles are so little known that biologists can't even assess their conservation status.

To help find a simple way of identifying at-risk reptiles, Reed and Shine studied ecological and behavioral traits that correlate with vulnerability in about Australia's terrestrial elapid snakes, which are venomous and comprise about 75 species. The researchers assessed 19 traits based both on existing field observations and on data from measuring and dissecting more than 18,000 preserved specimens. The traits ranged from foraging behavior (ambush vs. active hunting) to reproduction type (egg-laying vs. livebearing) to use of 25 habitat types (such as grassland, forest and swamp).

Reed and Shine found two main behavioral differences between threatened and non-threatened elapid snakes in Australia: most of the threatened snakes both lack male-male combat and rely on ambush foraging. About 80% of the threatened snakes lack male-male combat. These species tend to have larger females, which would put them at risk if peo

Contact: Bob Reed
Society for Conservation Biology

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