Jump to Main Content
Thermal ecology of black rat snakes (elaphe obsoleta) in a thermally challenging environment
- Blouin-Demers, Gabriel, Weatherhead, Patrick J.
- Ecology 2001 v.82 no.11 pp. 3025-3043
- Elaphe obsoleta, body temperature, climate, ectothermy, forest habitats, gravid females, males, oviposition, physical models, radio telemetry, snakes, Ontario
- A general model in thermal ecology predicts that ectotherms should stop thermoregulating when the costs outweigh the benefits. Support for this model comes from studies of warm‐temperate species, but the extent to which the model can be extrapolated to species living in climatic extremes is unknown, because of the lack of information regarding the thermoregulatory behavior of such species. We tested the applicability of this cost–benefit model using data for black rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) studied at the northern extreme of their range in Ontario. During 1997–1999, we used automated temperature‐sensitive radiotelemetry to collect ∼150 000 body temperatures from 53 free‐ranging rat snakes. Simultaneously, we used physical models of snakes to measure the environmental operative temperatures available to black rat snakes, and we determined their preferred body temperature range in a laboratory thermal gradient. The mostly forested habitats inhabited by rat snakes in Ontario were more thermally challenging than the habitats of other species studied to date. The preferred body temperature ranges of male, nongravid female, and gravid female black rat snakes were not significantly different (preferred body temperature averaged across all individuals, 28.1°C). However, free‐ranging gravid females tended to maintain higher body temperatures in order to thermoregulate more effectively as well as exploit their thermal environment more than males and nongravid females. This difference was most pronounced during the day and prior to egg laying, and constituted the first documentation of such a phenomenon in an oviparous snake. Black rat snakes had indices of thermoregulation effectiveness similar to other species but tended to exploit opportunities for thermoregulation less. Overall, our data provided support that was at best ambiguous for the current cost–benefit thermoregulation model, suggesting that this model may generally be less applicable to species inhabiting climatic extremes. We propose that, for species in extreme climates, the costs associated with thermoconformity may be more important than previously recognized. We identified several problems associated with the index of thermoregulation effectiveness used by previous researchers, and we propose a mathematically simpler alternative that circumvents these problems. We also make recommendations regarding the future use of the various indices of thermoregulation developed in recent years.