Facultative nocturnal behaviour in snakes: Experimental examination of why and how with Ratsnakes (Elaphe obsoleta) and Racers (Coluber constrictor)

Brett A. DeGregorio, Jinelle H. Sperry, Daniel P. Valente, Patrick J. Weatherhead

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Diel activity patterns are often fixed within species such that most animals can be classified as diurnal, crepuscular, or nocturnal, and have sensory abilities that reflect when they are active. However, many snake species appear capable of switching between diurnal and nocturnal activity. Here, we evaluate the hypothesis that some species are constrained in their activity by the sensory cues used for foraging. We experimentally assessed differences between two sympatric snake species in their ability to alter diel activity patterns, to address why those snakes that switch do so (do thermal constraints force them to be active in otherwise nonpreferred conditions?), and to explore how sensory abilities to locate prey facilitate or constrain this shift. Ratsnakes (Elaphe obsoleta (Say in James, 1823)) were active when temperature was optimal, regardless of light level, suggesting their activity pattern is genuinely plastic. Consistent with our predictions, Ratsnakes successfully detected prey in low and high light using visual or chemical cues, and were most successful when cues were coupled. Racers (Coluber constrictor L., 1758) were almost exclusively diurnal, regardless of temperature, and became less active when daytime temperatures were suboptimal. The ability of Ratsnakes to shift activity may confer a foraging advantage and should buffer Ratsnakes and similarly flexible species from climate change, whereas climate change may pose a more serious threat to inflexible species such as Racers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-237
Number of pages9
JournalCanadian journal of zoology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • Activity patterns
  • Climate change
  • Coluber constrictor
  • Elaphe obsoleta
  • Foraging
  • Racer
  • Ratsnake
  • Sensory modality
  • Thermal ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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