Prey envenomation does not improve digestive performance in western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox)

J Exp Zool A Ecol Genet Physiol. 2007 Oct 1;307(10):568-77. doi: 10.1002/jez.411.


Although the toxic properties of snake venoms have been recognized throughout history, very little is known about the adaptive significance of these powerful mixtures. This study examined the popular hypothesis that prey envenomation enhances digestion by influencing the energetic costs of digestion and assimilation, gut passage time, and apparent assimilation efficiency (ASSIM) in western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox), a species whose venom is recognized for its comparatively high proteolytic activities. A complete randomized block design allowed repeated measures of specific dynamic action and gut passage time to be measured in eight snakes ingesting four feeding treatments (i.e., artificially envenomated live mice, artificially envenomated prekilled mice, saline injected live mice, and saline injected prekilled mice). A second experiment measured ASSIM in eight snakes ingesting a series of six artificially envenomated or six saline injected mice meals over an 8-week period. Contrary to expectations, the results of both these experiments revealed that envenomation had no significant influence on any of the measured digestive performance variables. Gut passage time averaged 6 days and ASSIM averaged 79.1%. Twenty-one hours following ingestion, postprandial metabolic rates exhibited factorial increases that averaged 3.9-fold greater than resting metabolic rate. Specific dynamic action lasted on average 88 hr and accounted for 26% of the total ingested energy. The results of this study reinforce the need to systematically examine the potential adaptive advantages that venoms confer on the snakes that produce them.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Crotalid Venoms / toxicity*
  • Crotalus / physiology*
  • Digestion / drug effects*
  • Digestion / physiology
  • Energy Metabolism / drug effects
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • Gastrointestinal Transit / drug effects*
  • Gastrointestinal Transit / physiology
  • Intestinal Absorption / drug effects*
  • Mice
  • Predatory Behavior


  • Crotalid Venoms