Fossils and phylogeny uncover the evolutionary history of a unique antipredator behaviour

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Recently, two squirrel species (Spermophilus spp.) were discovered to anoint their bodies with rattlesnake scent as a means of concealing their odour from these chemosensory predators. In this study, we tested multiple species with predator scents (rattlesnake and weasel) to determine the prevalence of scent application across the squirrel phylogeny. We reconstructed the evolutionary history of the behaviour using a phylogenetic analysis and fossil records of historic predator co-occurrence. Squirrels with historical and current rattlesnake co-occurrence all applied rattlesnake scent, whereas no relationship existed between weasel scent application and either weasel or rattlesnake co-occurrence. This was surprising because experimental tests confirmed rattlesnake and weasel scent were both effective at masking prey odour from hunting rattlesnakes (the primary predator of squirrels). Ancestral reconstructions and fossil data suggest predator scent application in squirrels is ancient in origin, arising before co-occurrences with rattlesnakes or weasels in response to some other, now extinct, chemosensory predator.

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