Predatory Response of Brown Tree Snakes, to Chemical Stimuli from Human Skin
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The brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) is an exotic pest species on Pacific islands, most notably on Guam where it has caused considerable ecological and economic damage. On Guam, the snake commonly associates with people and can be found near or in human habitations. Bites are common, approximately 1 of 1200 emergency room visits to Guam hospitals were reported to be the result of B. irregularis bites; 80% of these victims were attacked while sleeping. Most of the attacks occurred on fingers and hands and the attacks appeared to be predatory, rather than defensive, in nature. In order to characterize the mechanism releasing this unusual behavior, we measured the predatory response of B. irregularis to chemical stimuli from humans and controls using a lab population that originated from Guam and a wild population from the species' native range in Queensland, Australia. To quantify behavior we measured the proportion of snakes displaying predatory behavior to each of the stimuli, the latency to attack, and the number of tongue-flicks displayed. We quantified predatory behavior using the tongue-flick attack score for repeated measures [TFAS(R)], a common method for quantifying predatory behavior in squamate reptiles. Captive brown tree snakes responded to human skin stimuli with feeding behavior, including predatory attacks, at the same frequency as they did to prey stimuli derived from mice, while never responding to controls with such behavior. Captive snakes also responded to human skin stimuli and prey stimuli with significantly higher TFAS(R) scores than to controls, although there were no differences between the human and mouse stimuli. Wild-caught animals in Australia also responded with predatory attacks to human skin stimuli, while not showing predatory behavior to a blank control and with higher TFAS(R) scores to human skin stimuli than to the control. As B. irregularis is a generalized predator that relies heavily on chemical signals to recognize prey, we hypothesize that the snakes recognize compounds on human skin that may be shared with other prey.
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