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Foraging behavior in a generalist snake (brown treesnake, Boiga irregularis) with implications for avian reintroduction and recovery

September 11, 2021

Broad foraging classifications, such as generalist or specialist forager, are generally beneficial for population management in defining expectations of typical behavior. However, better understanding as to how individual variance in behavior interfaces with management actions, such as control of an invasive predator (such as brown treesnakes; Boiga irregularis) responsible for ecological collapse of a taxonomic group (birds), may affect conservation goals. In the context of predator control, better understanding of foraging ecology and prey specificity helps to ensure that food-based control programs are removing the target individuals. We sought to quantify whether differences in a dietary generalist snake species was measurable during captive trials using mice or birds as the prey choice. We presented snakes with prey choices that could be or are integrated with tools deployed by managers for control to directly relate choice or preference to management action. We collected wild brown treesnakes and classified them as bird eaters or of unknown diet based on food items present in their digestive tract at the time of capture. In experimental tests, we used live birds and live mice in traps, as well as bird and mouse carrion presented on platforms, to measure interest, take rates, and repeatability (preference) by snakes. We found that all individuals spent more time investigating live birds than they did mice, independent of dietary history, which resulted in twice as many snakes being captured in traps with live birds compared to live mice. There was, however, roughly equal interest in mouse and bird carrion. Within individuals, there was evidence for decreased interest in mouse carrion, if individuals ate birds in the wild. Choice of carrion type was repeatable across trials, suggesting preference may exist. Overall, interest in both live mice and mouse carrion was greatest for medium-bodied snakes, while interest in bird carrion was independent of snake size. Our results indicate that management of invasive predators, including reptiles, may more rapidly achieve conservation targets when managers consider individual heterogeneity in behavior. For brown treesnakes more interested in birds, managers may remove more snakes if they use avian food lures; increased removal of avian specialists may facilitate avian recovery.