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Tail movements by late-term fetal pitvipers resemble caudal luring: prenatal development of an ambush predatory behavior

Smith, Charles F.

Department of Biology

Wofford College

Spartanburg, South Carolina USA

Chiricahua Desert Museum

Rodeo, New Mexico USA

Schuett, Gordon. W.

Department of Biology ǀ Neuroscience Institute

Georgia State University

Atlanta, Georgia USA

Chiricahua Desert Museum

Rodeo, New Mexico USA

With the advent of powerful imaging instruments, the prenatal behavior of vertebrates has been discovered to be far more complex than previously believed, especially concerning humans, other mammals, and birds. Surprisingly, the fetal behavior of squamate reptiles (lizards, snakes, and amphisbaenians), a group of over 11,000 extant species, are largely understudied. Using ultrasonography, 18 late-term pregnant copperhead snakes (Agkistrodon contortrix) from a single population in Connecticut were inspected for fecundity (number of fetuses). Unexpectedly, during the ultrasound procedure that involved 97 fetuses, we observed sinusoidal tail movements in 11 individuals from eight different copperhead mothers. These movements were indistinguishable from caudal luring, a mimetic ambush predatory strategy which is exhibited by newborn copperheads and other snakes. Caudal luring is initiated shortly after birth and is employed to attract susceptible vertebrate prey such as frogs and lizards. Using the same ultrasound equipment and methods, we tested for this behavior in late-term fetuses of two species of rattlesnakes (genus Crotalus) not known to caudal lure and none showed any type of tail movements. Prenatal movements in humans and other vertebrates are known to be important for musculoskeletal and sensorimotor development. The fetal behaviors we describe for copperheads, and which is possibly present in other snakes, may be similarly important and influence early survival and subsequent fitness.