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Resource selection by an ectothermic predator in a dynamic thermal landscape

13 Oct 2017


Predicting the effects of global climate change on species interactions has remained difficult because there is a spatiotemporal mismatch between regional climate models and microclimates experienced by organisms. We evaluated resource selection in a predominant ectothermic predator using a modeling approach that permitted us to assess the importance of habitat structure and local real-time air temperatures within the same modeling framework. We radio-tracked 53 western ratsnakes (Pantherophis obsoletus) from 2010 to 2013 in central Missouri, USA, at study sites where this species has previously been linked to prey population demographics. We used Bayesian discrete choice models within an information theoretic framework to evaluate the seasonal effects of fine-scale vegetation structure and thermal conditions on ratsnake resource selection. Ratsnake resource selection was influenced most by canopy cover, canopy cover heterogeneity, understory cover, and air temperature heterogeneity. Ratsnakes generally preferred habitats with greater canopy heterogeneity early in the active season, and greater temperature heterogeneity later in the season. This seasonal shift potentially reflects differences in resource requirements and thermoregulation behavior. Predicted patterns of space use indicate that ratsnakes preferentially selected open habitats in spring and early summer and forest–field edges throughout the active season. Our results show that downscaled temperature models can be used to enhance our understanding of animal resource selection at scales that can be addressed by managers. We suggest that conservation of snakes or their prey in a changing climate will require consideration of fine-scale interactions between local air temperatures and habitat structure.

Habitat fragmentation and global climate change can affect prey populations by altering the behavior of predators. We used a novel modeling approach to evaluate seasonal resource selection by western ratsnakes in a system where they are predominant predators of birds and small mammals. Ratsnakes preferentially selected thermal conditions and habitat features associated with forest fragmentation, suggesting a mechanism for high predation rates in fragmented landscapes.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Ecology and Evolution

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