Prey morphology constrains the feeding ecology of an aquatic generalist predator
Willson, John D.
Hopkins, William A.
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Resource availability and accessibility are primary factors guiding the distribution and abundance of organisms. For generalists, prey availability reflects both prey abundance and differences in quality among prey taxa. Although some aspects of prey quality, such as nutritional composition, are well studied, our understanding of how prey morphology contributes to overall prey quality is limited. Because snakes cannot reduce prey size by mastication, many aspects of their feeding ecology (e.g., maximum prey size, feeding performance, and the degree of postprandial locomotor impairment) may be affected by prey shape. We conducted a uniquely comprehensive comparison of prey quality for a generalist species, the banded watersnake (Nerodia fasciata), using prey that were similar in mass and presumably similar in nutritional composition but different in shape and habitat association. Specifically, we compared nutritional composition and shape of paedomorphic salamanders (Ambystoma talpoideum) and sunfish (Lepomis marginatus) and used a series of repeated-measures experiments to examine feeding performance (number of prey consumed, maximum prey size, and intra-oral transport time), digestive metabolism (specific dynamic action, SDA), and postprandial locomotor performance of snakes fed Ambystoma and Lepomis. Cost of digestion was similar between the prey types, likely reflecting their similar nutritional composition. However, snakes consumed larger Ambystoma than Lepomis and intra-oral transport time was much shorter for Ambystoma. Snakes fed Lepomis also suffered greater reduction in crawling speed than those fed Ambystoma. These differences highlight the need for behaviorally integrated approaches to understanding prey quality and support field observations of the importance of amphibian prey for juvenile watersnakes.