Allometry and selection in a novel predator-prey system: Australian snakes and the invading cane toad

Ben L. Phillips*, Richard Shine

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


Because many organismal traits vary with body size, interactions between species can be affected by the respective body sizes of the participants. We focus on a novel predator-prey system involving an introduced, highly toxic anuran (the cane toad, Bufo marinus) and native Australian snakes. The chance of a snake dying after ingesting a toad depends on the size of the snake and the size of the toad, and ultimately reflects the effect of four allometries: (1) physiological tolerance (the rate that physiological tolerance to toad toxin changes with snake size); (2) swallowing ability (the rate that maximal ingestible toad size (i.e. snake head size) increases with snake body size); (3) prey size (the rate that prey size taken by snakes increases with snake head size) and (4) toad toxicity (the rate that toxicity increases with toad size). We measured these allometries, and combined them to estimate the rate at which a snake's resistance changes with toad toxicity. The parotoid glands (and thus, toxicity) of toads increased disproportionately with toad size (i.e. relative to body size, larger toads were more toxic) but simultaneously, head size relative to body size (and thus, maximal ingestible prey size relative to predator size) declined with increasing body size in snakes. Thus, these two allometries tended to cancel each other out. Physiological tolerance to toxins did not vary with snake body size. The end result was that across snake species, mean adult body size did not affect vulnerability. Within species, however, smaller predators were more vulnerable, because the intraspecific rate of decrease in relative head size of snakes was steeper than the rate of increase in toxicity of toads. Thus, toad invasion may cause disproportionate mortality of juvenile snakes, and adults of the sex with smaller mean adult body sizes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)122-130
Number of pages9
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2006
Externally publishedYes


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