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Telescoping prey selection in invasive Burmese pythons spells trouble for endangered rodents

August 11, 2023

The allometric scaling of predators and their prey is well established within snakes (i.e., gape-width limits maximum prey sizes). However, while some species exhibit ontogenetic shifts to larger prey as they grow, others exhibit telescoping prey selection and continue to consume small prey in addition to larger prey. The Burmese python (Python bivittatus) is a large dietary generalist constrictor native to Southeast Asia that is established in South Florida (USA). As part of survey efforts at the southern invasion front in the Florida Keys, we used camera traps to document predation on endangered Key Largo cotton mice (Peromyscus gossypinus allapaticola) by an adult female Burmese python. These images represent the first photo documentation of predation attempts upon a federally endangered species in the python's invasive range, but we note three additional instances of Key Largo cotton mice in the gut contents of euthanized pythons from Key Largo. These observations suggest Burmese pythons exhibit telescoping prey selection behavior where even small rodents (<30 g) are viable prey for adult snakes. However, based on the number of documented strikes with failed predation events and low frequency of occurrence in gut contents, we suspect mice may be less common prey items for adult (i.e., >185 cm SVL) pythons relative to cotton mouse abundance in the environment. However, we also documented endangered Key Largo woodrats (Neotoma floridana smalli) and Key Largo cotton mice collecting and consuming the shed skins of pythons, which suggests the two rodent species remain naïve to the threat of these invasive predators. Further understanding of the impact of Burmese pythons on native prey communities can help inform efforts to minimize biodiversity loss along their invasion fronts.

Publication Year 2023
Title Telescoping prey selection in invasive Burmese pythons spells trouble for endangered rodents
DOI 10.1016/j.fooweb.2023.e00307
Authors Issac Lord, Joseph Redinger, Jeremy Dixon, Kristen Hart, Jacquelyn C. Guzy, Christina M. Romagosa, Michael V. Cove
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Food Webs
Index ID 70247916
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center