1. Do thermal factors influence foraging-site selection by ectothermic predators? Snake species that obtain their prey from ambush must remain immobile for long periods, precluding overt behavioural thermoregulation; and some "ambush" snakes use thermal cues to detect endothermic prey. Plausibly, alternative ambush sites might differ either in equilibrial body temperatures available to snakes, or in the thermal "background" against which prey items must be detected.
2. We examined this topic with field data on pit-vipers (Gloydius shedaoensis) on a small island in northeastern China. Adult snakes feed only on migrating passerine birds. The snakes ambush birds both from arboreal perches (branches of small trees) and from the ground.
3. Arboreal versus terrestrial ambush sites differed both in operative temperatures and thermal "backgrounds" available to the snakes. Operative temperatures inside copper models were lower in trees than on the ground (because of wind), and snakes in arboreal ambush sites were cooler than those in terrestrial sites. Thermal backgrounds from arboreal perches were cooler (and thus, provided more contrast against prey items) than did backgrounds available from terrestrial ambush-sites.
4. Thermal factors thus modify the suitability of alternative ambush locations for these pit-vipers, but with a trade-off: a snake in a tree can "see" its prey more clearly, but may not be warm enough (and hence, able to strike fast enough) to capture it. Further work is required to determine whether or not snakes actually use such thermal differences as criteria for the selection of ambush sites.
- Infrared receptors
- Prey detection