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Chemical Basis of Prey Recognition in Thamnophiine Snakes: The Unexpected New Roles of Parvalbumins

Public Library of Science
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0039560
  • Research Article
  • Biology
  • Anatomy And Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Proteins
  • Ecology
  • Behavioral Ecology
  • Physiological Ecology
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Animal Behavior
  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Cell Biology
  • Signal Transduction
  • Signaling Pathways
  • Calcium-Mediated Signal Transduction
  • Population Biology
  • Population Dynamics
  • Predator-Prey Dynamics
  • Zoology
  • Herpetology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry


Detecting and locating prey are key to predatory success within trophic chains. Predators use various signals through specialized visual, olfactory, auditory or tactile sensory systems to pinpoint their prey. Snakes chemically sense their prey through a highly developed auxiliary olfactory sense organ, the vomeronasal organ (VNO). In natricine snakes that are able to feed on land and water, the VNO plays a critical role in predatory behavior by detecting cues, known as vomodors, which are produced by their potential prey. However, the chemical nature of these cues remains unclear. Recently, we demonstrated that specific proteins–parvalbumins–present in the cutaneous mucus of the common frog (Rana temporaria) may be natural chemoattractive proteins for these snakes. Here, we show that parvalbumins and parvalbumin-like proteins, which are mainly intracellular, are physiologically present in the epidermal mucous cells and mucus of several frog and fish genera from both fresh and salt water. These proteins are located in many tissues and function as Ca2+ buffers. In addition, we clarified the intrinsic role of parvalbumins present in the cutaneous mucus of amphibians and fishes. We demonstrate that these Ca2+-binding proteins participate in innate bacterial defense mechanisms by means of calcium chelation. We show that these parvalbumins are chemoattractive for three different thamnophiine snakes, suggesting that these chemicals play a key role in their prey-recognition mechanism. Therefore, we suggest that recognition of parvalbumin-like proteins or other calcium-binding proteins by the VNO could be a generalized prey-recognition process in snakes. Detecting innate prey defense mechanism compounds may have driven the evolution of this predator-prey interaction.

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