Metabolic physiology of Colubrid dietary specialists, Dasypeltis scabra and Dasypeltis inornata.
Metabolic rate (MR) and digestive duration are thermally dependant, and energy usage changes as body temperature (Tb) changes. Increased Tb during digestion causes a rapid increase in VO2 and a shorter postprandial metabolic response known as specific dynamic action (SDA). SDA is the additional energy expended above standard metabolic rate (SMR) to carry out functions associated with meal digestion and assimilation. SDA is affected by prey size, prey type and body mass (Mb). Liquid meals require less energy to digest and assimilate than intact prey items resulting in a lower metabolic scope and reduced postprandial metabolic response. Digestive efficiency and metabolism are also affected by the level of dietary specialization which can lead to increased digestive efficiency in terms of duration and energy used for digesting preferred prey items. Here, I investigated the effects of Mb, Tb and ontogeny on standard and digestive MR of two dietary specialists, Dasypeltis scabra and D. inornata. Dasypeltis scabra, found throughout South Africa, and D. inornata, endemic to the eastern parts of South Africa and western part of Swaziland, digest only the liquid contents of freshly laid bird eggs and should have a lower energy cost of digestion and assimilation than other snake species consuming intact prey containing bones, fur or chitinous carapace. To test the effect of changes in Tb on the metabolic response of Dasypeltis, pre- and postprandial metabolic responses of adult D. inornata and adult and neonate D. scabra were compared. SMR and SDA were quantified at five ambient temperatures 20, 25, 27, 30, 32°C using closed system respirometry. SMR was measured for 3 days twice a day at 08h00 and 20h00. Thereafter, snakes were fed a meal of chicken egg equivalent to 20% of Mb and oxygen uptake (VO2) was measured for an additional 5 days at 08h00 and 20h00, and then once a day at 08h00 for an additional 7 – 10 days. Increased Tb resulted in increases in metabolic response variables for all groups. Variation in Tb significantly affected SDA (kJ kg-1) of D. scabra adults and neonates and D. inornata adults. There were few significant interspecific and ontogenetic differences across all temperature trials. Within five days after meal consumption for all groups at 32°C, postprandial VO2 rates peaked at 3.16 - 3.73 times preprandial rates (scope), lower than most other snake species. The optimal digestion temperature appears to be around 32°C in terms of duration, but may be higher to optimize digestion. Across the range of temperatures (20 - 32°C) and masses (3.98 – 71.33g), the duration of significantly elevated VO2 was on average 1.5 - 2 days longer for D. scabra adults and neonates than D. inornata. Digestion duration ranged from 6.5 - 13.5 days for D. inornata and from 7.5 - 16.5 days for D. scabra adults and neonates. Digestive duration was longer for D. scabra than other snake species that consume meals of intact prey of similar size, at the same temperature. Dasypeltis species expended less total energy for digestion and used a smaller proportion of total energy consumed for digestion than other snake species at similar temperatures. Lower maintenance and digestive costs suggest that energy is conserved for allocation to other functions during periods of low prey availability. In addition, Dasypeltis species may rely on thermoregulation to capitalize on reduction in energy output and to increase energy savings between meals.