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Plasticity and flexibility in the anti-predator responses of treefrog tadpoles
Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology  (IF2.98),  Pub Date : 2021-09-23, DOI: 10.1007/s00265-021-03078-1
Sergio, Castellano, Luca, Racca, Olivier, Friard


Tadpoles can respond to perceived predation risk by adjusting their life history, morphology, and behavior in an adaptive way. Adaptive phenotypic plasticity can evolve by natural selection only if there is variation in reaction norms and if this variation is, at least in part, heritable. To provide insights into the evolution of adaptive phenotypic plasticity, we analyzed the environmental and parental components of variation in predator-induced life history (age and size at metamorphosis), morphology (tail depth), and behavior of Italian treefrog tadpoles (Hyla intermedia). Using an incomplete factorial design, we raised tadpoles either with or without caged predators (dragonfly larvae, gen. Aeshna) and, successively, we tested them in experimental arenas either with or without caged predators. Results provided strong evidence for an environmental effect on all three sets of characters. Tadpoles raised with caged predators (dragonfly larvae, gen. Aeshna) metamorphosed earlier (but at a similar body size) and developed deeper tails than their fullsib siblings raised without predators. In the experimental arenas, all tadpoles, independent of their experience, flexibly changed their activity and position, depending on whether the cage was empty or contained the predator. Tadpoles of the two experimental groups, however, showed different responses: those raised with predators were always less active than their predator-naive siblings and differences slightly increased in the presence of predators. Besides this strong environmental component of phenotypic variation, results provided evidence also for parental and parental-by-environment effects, which were strong on life-history, but weak on morphology and behavior. Interestingly, additive parental effects were explained mainly by dams. This supports the hypothesis that phenotypic plasticity might mainly depend on maternal effects and that it might be the expression of condition-dependent mechanisms.

Significance statement

Animals, by plastically adjusting their phenotypes to the local environments, can often sensibly improve their chances of survival, suggesting the hypothesis that phenotypic plasticity evolved by natural selection. We test this hypothesis in the Italian treefrog tadpoles, by investigating the heritable variation in the plastic response to predators (dragonfly larvae). Using an incomplete factorial common-garden experiment, we showed that tadpoles raised with predators metamorphosed earlier (but at similar body size), developed deeper tails, and were less active than their siblings raised without predators. The plastic response varied among families, but variation showed a stronger maternal than paternal component. This suggests that plasticity might largely depend on epigenetic factors and be the expression of condition-dependent mechanisms.