Date of Graduation

Spring 2015


Master of Science in Biology



Committee Chair

Brian Greene


Snakes release malodorous secretions from cloacal musk glands when harassed by predators. Although these secretions have mainly been evaluated as predator deterrents, they have also been suggested to function as alarm pheromones. I conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that musk gland secretions function as an alarm signal in the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), using behavioral and physiological response variables. In a repeated-measures experiment snakes were exposed to solutions of musk gland secretions, integumentary chemicals from conspecifics, and distilled water as a blank control. In behavior trials, snakes exhibited elevated tongue-flick rates, engaged in longer periods of immobility, and took significantly longer to complete a foraging task in the presence of musk cues relative to controls. Metabolic trials showed a similar general pattern consistent with reduced activity in musk treatments relative to controls. However, metabolic responses were highly variable due to confounding influences of a testing order effect, and litter-specific differences. Overall, my study provides new evidence for alarm signal functionality of musk gland secretions in snakes and adds to the understanding of chemically mediated communication in snakes.


cottonmouth, alarm pheromone, chemical communication, metabolism, behavior, Agkistrodon piscivorus, snake

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© Joseph Matthew Churilla

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