Public information for solitary foragers: timber rattlesnakes use conspecific chemical cues to select ambush sites

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Many animals use public information (PI) gathered from conspecifics to assess the quality of potential foraging locations. To date, research on this phenomenon has focused almost exclusively on social foragers that live in groups and monitor nearby individuals. PI is potentially available to solitary foragers as well, in the form of cues (such as chemical cues) that persist in the environment after conspecifics are no longer present. In this study, I examined the response of a solitary sit-and-wait predator, the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), to chemical cues from conspecifics that had recently fed as opposed to those that had been deprived of food. Experiments with a T-maze indicated that timber rattlesnakes always follow conspecific chemical trails out of the maze, regardless of whether or not the individual leaving the trail had recently fed. However, an enclosure choice test found that individuals are more likely to select ambush sites in areas with chemical cues from conspecifics that had recently fed. These results indicate that snakes may use conspecific chemical cues not only to find mates, shelter sites, and hibernacula but also profitable food patches. Additionally, this study highlights the possibility that other solitary foragers may use PI to guide their foraging behavior.

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