How to study a predator that only eats a few meals a year: high-frequency accelerometry to quantify feeding behaviours of rattlesnakes (Crotalus spp.)

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Animal Biotelemetry


Background: Many snakes are low-energy predators that use crypsis to ambush their prey. Most of these species feed very infrequently, are sensitive to the presence of larger vertebrates, such as humans, and spend large portions of their lifetime hidden. This makes direct observation of feeding behaviour challenging, and previous methodologies developed for documenting predation behaviours of free-ranging snakes have critical limitations. Animal-borne accelerometers have been increasingly used by ecologists to quantify activity and moment-to-moment behaviour of free ranging animals, but their application in snakes has been limited to documenting basic behavioural states (e.g., active vs. non-active). High-frequency accelerometry can provide new insight into the behaviour of this important group of predators, and here we propose a new method to quantify key aspects of the feeding behaviour of three species of viperid snakes (Crotalus spp.) and assess the transferability of classification models across those species. Results: We used open-source software to create species-specific models that classified locomotion, stillness, predatory striking, and prey swallowing with high precision, accuracy, and recall. In addition, we identified a low cost, reliable, non-invasive attachment method for accelerometry devices to be placed anteriorly on snakes, as is likely necessary for accurately classifying distinct behaviours in these species. However, species-specific models had low transferability in our cross-species comparison. Conclusions: Overall, our study demonstrates the strong potential for using accelerometry to document critical feeding behaviours in snakes that are difficult to observe directly. Furthermore, we provide an ‘end-to-end’ template for identifying important behaviours involved in the foraging ecology of viperids using high-frequency accelerometry. We highlight a method of attachment of accelerometers, a technique to simulate feeding events in captivity, and a model selection procedure using biologically relevant window sizes in an open-access software for analyzing acceleration data (AcceleRater). Although we were unable to obtain a generalized model across species, if more data are incorporated from snakes across different body sizes and different contexts (i.e., moving through natural habitat), general models could potentially be developed that have higher transferability.


Biological and Environmental Sciences

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