Should I stay or should I go: Escape behaviour of Russell's vipers, Daboia russelii (Shaw & Nodder, 1797) in India's agricultural landscapes
Predation exerts a strong selective force on prey, and hence prey species have evolved a multitude of ways to escape predation. One strategy by which many mobile species escape predation is by fleeing when approached by predators. However, fleeing too early can have fitness costs. Thus, optimal escape theory suggests that escape behaviour in prey depends on the risk of being eaten and the fleeing costs. Several studies on mammals, birds and lizards lend support to this hypothesis. However, few studies have explored escape behaviour in snakes. Here, using radio telemetry to track snakes in the field, we study the escape behaviour in Russell’s vipers, a highly venomous and cryptic snake, responsible for the highest number of snakebite deaths in India. We show that escape response, i.e., the decision to stay or flee, was influenced by intrinsic factors such as the snake’s behaviour and body temperature. We also show that the flight initiation distance, the distance at which the snake flees, was mostly determined by habitat selection, i.e., the visibility of the snake and the distance to the nearest cover. Overall, we show that different factors could determine the decision to flee and when to flee. We also highlight how understanding escape response in such highly venomous, medically important yet secretive snakes could potentially help reduce human–snake encounters and mitigate the snakebite crisis.