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Individual Variation in the Antisnake Behavior of California Ground Squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi)

Richard G. Coss, James E. Biardi
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1382883 294-310 First published online: 21 May 1997


California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) have evolved behavioral defenses against their two predators, the northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis oreganus) and Pacific gopher snake (Pituophis melanoleucus catenifer). Two studies were used to examine individual variation in antisnake behavior as it might be affected by selection operating on arousability, fearfulness, and aggressiveness. In Study 1 the behavioral consistency of two litters of lab-reared juveniles was examined at two age periods during encounters with a caged gopher snake and domestic cat. Close-range investigation and tail flagging appeared to be governed by short-term motivational states that were not strongly correlated across age. Age correlations revealed that individual tendencies to throw substrate were relatively consistent for the snake and even more so for the cat. In Study 2, wild-caught adults were obtained from five sites where rattlesnakes and gopher snakes were abundant and from five sites where these snakes were rare or absent. Squirrels in a seminatural laboratory setting were given balanced presentations of a caged rattlesnake and gopher snake separated by 5 days. Snakes were recognized by all squirrels as potentially dangerous, irrespective of experience, age, and selective regime. Substrate throwing also was positively correlated for the two snakes in both groups of adults, indicating that level of aggressiveness is a consistent component of temperament not specific to species of snakes. Physiological arousal was not correlated strongly for the two snakes, but it was significantly lower in squirrels from sites where snakes were abundant. This suggests some specialization to reduce anxiety that possibly enhances tactical decision making.

Key words
  • Spermophilus beecheyi
  • antipredator behavior
  • canonical correlation analysis
  • gopher snakes
  • ground squirrels
  • individual variation
  • rattlesnakes
  • temperament