Conspecific Scent Trailing in Juvenile Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

Martin, Chelsea

Greene, Brian D.

Department of Biology

Missouri State University

Springfield, Missouri, USA

In temperate regions with severe winters, successful location of suitable hibernacula has important survival advantages for neonate snakes. Orientation and navigation to hibernacula has been suggested to occur via scent trailing of conspecifics in neonatal rattlesnakes. We examined the ability of captive-born juvenile Northern Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus), from a population close to the species’ northern range limit, to trail cutaneous cues from conspecifics in y-maze trials. Juveniles 2-3 months old trailed maternal cues significantly more often than a blank (odorless) control (P=0.01, n=16), but also preferred to trail cues from unrelated adult conspecific females compared to cues from their own mothers (P=0.04, n=16). An 18 month old cohort (n=16) of snakes from the same population did not exhibit any preference (P=0.37) for cues of adult female conspecifics over a blank control, suggesting that trailing behavior of juveniles has an ontogenetic component. Overall, our results are consistent with reports of scent trailing of adult conspecifics by neonate rattlesnakes to hibernacula. However, the apparent preference of young juveniles for non-maternal conspecific cues has not, to our knowledge, been reported in snakes. Given the occurrence of post-partum mother-offspring affiliations in cottonmouths, an attraction to non-maternal cues is not obviously explained and may be an interesting topic for future research.

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