An experimental manipulation of diet and its influence on growth and epidermal lipids in the northern cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
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I investigated the effect of diet on growth, skin permeability, and lipid content of snake skin. Lipids are a vital source of energy for life and provide the barrier to water loss in snake epidermis. I conducted a study on a captive colony of snakes (Agkistrodon piscivorus), controlling for either a fish (Notemigonus crysoleucas) or a mouse (Mus musculus) diet. Snakes fed a diet of mice gained significantly more mass than snakes on a diet of fish, indicating that increased lipid content in diet has a significant effect on growth. However, I found no significant difference in cutaneous water loss or lipid content between the two diet groups, indicating that lipid content and cutaneous water loss are strong species-specific physiological performance traits not influenced by recent dietary history. Using IR spectroscopy, I found qualitative differences in absorbance and molecular geometry between the dorsal and ventral surfaces of snake skin. The physiological ability to limit water loss likely plays an important role in microhabitat partitioning between copperheads and cottonmouths but is not influenced by the different diets of these sympatric (but not syntopic) species.