Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Biological Sciences


Biological Sciences


Dr. Emily Taylor


Global biodiversity is declining as a direct result of anthropogenic climate change. Ectothermic species have become focal organisms for studying the ecological effects of altered climates due to the clear relationship between environmental temperatures and ectotherms’ basic physiological functions. Historically, examinations of these effects have focused heavily on heliothermic lizards, and most others have tended to focus on single populations or sympatric species within a single community. Addressing the longterm energetic implications of environmental temperature variation will provide valuable insight into the cascading physiological effects that certain populations or species may experience as a result of altered climates.

In this study, we used thermal and behavioral data collected between 2010 and 2017 from four distinct populations of Pacific rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) on the Central Coast of California. Two of these populations occupy thermally mild, coastal habitats while the other two occupy more thermally dynamic, inland habitats. Using operative temperature models, surgically implanted temperature loggers, and radiotelemetry, we collected data on the thermal microhabitats available within each of these study sites as well as field active body temperatures for 85 individual snakes. With the addition of a lab-derived preferred body temperature range, we determined the thermal quality of each site and the thermoregulatory accuracy of snakes from each population. Field behavioral observations, gathered from snakes at all four sites simultaneously during the year 2017, revealed how snakes utilize the thermal landscape and adjust thermoregulatory behavior to mitigate the effects of different climates. Although overall thermal quality was best at coastal sites, thermal quality of the microhabitats within each site varied greatly. Consistent with findings in other squamate reptiles, inland snakes thermoregulated more accurately, despite being in more thermally constrained environments. Despite the fact that coastal snakes had lower mean field active body temperatures, the preferred body temperatures of snakes were the same across all four sites. However, field active body temperatures were consistently lower than the preferred range, suggesting there are additional variables that influence thermoregulatory behavior.

Using established equations estimating the resting metabolic rates of snakes based on body mass and temperature, we calculated resting metabolic rate and annual baseline maintenance energy expenditure for each population. Coastal snakes, which had lower field active body temperatures, had overall lower metabolic rates than inland snakes, but upon correcting for mass, snakes at neither coastal nor inland sites differed in metabolic rates. Therefore, the majority of the differences observed in metabolic rates are driven by body size and not field-active body temperature. Inland snakes need, on average, approximately 1.6x more food annually than coastal snakes. Due to overall low resting metabolic rates, this translates to snakes at all sites needing less than one ground squirrel (their most common food item on the Central Coast) per year to fuel basic physiological functions.

Finally, we used conservative predictive climate change models allowing either 1°C or 2°C increases to predict changes in the thermal quality of each site and ensuing changes in snake metabolic rates and maintenance energy expenditure. Due to the relatively high preferred body temperature of C. oreganus, thermal quality of the environment will actually increase under these climate models; due to an increase in ambient temperature, the proportion of hourly temperatures that fall within the preferred body temperature range will increase. If snake body temperature were to increase as the climate warms, a theoretical increase in body temperature of 1 and 2°C would have a low impact on the overall energetic needs of snakes, still allowing them to meet baseline maintenance energetic needs with only one large meal a year. Furthermore, we expect small increases in ambient temperature to have little impact on rattlesnakes because they are fairly precise thermoregulators, maintaining fairly constant body temperatures regardless of their thermal surroundings. Overall, our results show that studying the thermal ecology of multiple populations of a single species can reveal fine-scale information about the relationship between the thermal landscape and both ectotherm behavior and physiological processes. Additionally, our findings show that some species of large-bodied reptiles may be robust to modest thermal perturbations under conservative climate change predictions.

Award received:

Henri Seibert Award in Physiology and Morphology

Available for download on Thursday, July 02, 2020