The evolutionary success of macrostomatan (enlarged-gape) snakes has been attributed to their ability to consume large prey, in turn made possible by their highly kinetic skulls. However, prey can be "large" in several ways, and we have little insight into which aspects of prey size and shape affect skull function during feeding. We used X-ray videos of broad-banded water snakes (Nerodia fasciata) feeding on both frogs and fish to quantify movements of the jaw elements during prey transport, and of the anterior vertebral column during post-cranial swallowing. In a sample of additional individuals feeding on both frogs and fish, we measured the time and the number of jaw protractions needed to transport prey through the buccal cavity. Prey type (fish vs. frog) did not influence transport kinematics, but did influence transport performance. Furthermore, wider and taller prey induced greater movements of most cranial elements, but wider prey were transported with significantly less anterior vertebral bending. In the performance trials, heavier, shorter, and wider prey took significantly more time and a greater number of jaw protractions to ingest. Thus, the functional challenges involved in prey transport depend not only upon prey mass, but also prey type (fish vs. frog) and prey shape (relative height, width and length), suggesting that from the perspective of a gape-limited predator, the difficulty of prey ingestion depends upon multiple aspects of prey size.
- feeding performance
- foraging ecology