Original Papers


, Volume 96, Issue 2, pp 162-168

First online:

Morphological variation in a larval salamander: dietary induction of plasticity in head shape

  • Susan C. WallsAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, Oregon State University
  • , Secret S. BelangerAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, Oregon State University
  • , Andrew R. BlausteinAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, Oregon State University

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We examined diet-dependent plasticity in head shape in larvae of the eastern long-toed salamander, Ambystoma macrodactylum columbianum. Larvae in some populations of this species exhibit trophic polymorphism, with some individuals possessing exaggerated trophic features characteristic of a cannibalistic morphology in larval Ambystoma; e.g. a disproportionately broad head and hypertrophied vomerine teeth. We hypothesized that 1) head shape variation results from feeding upon different types of prey and that 2) cannibal morphs are induced by consumption of conspecifics. To induce variation, we fed three groups of larvae different diets: 1) brine shrimp nauplii only; 2) nauplii plus anuran tadpoles; 3) nauplii, tadpoles and conspecific larval salamanders. Comparisons of size (mass)-adjusted means revealed that this manipulation of diet induced significant variation in six measures of head shape, but not in the area of the vomerine tooth patch. For five of the six head traits, larvae that ate tadpoles and brine shrimp nauplii developed significantly broader, longer and deeper heads than did larvae that only ate brine shrimp nauplii. The ingestion of conspecifics, in addition to nauplii and tadpoles, significantly altered two head traits (interocular-width and head depth), compared to larvae only fed nauplii and tadpoles. Canonical discriminant function analysis detected two statistically reliable canonical variables: head depth was most highly associated with the first canonical variable, whereas three measures of head width (at the jaws, gills and eyes) and interocular width were most highly associated with the second canonical variable. Despite this diet-enhanced morphological variation, there was no indication that any of the three types of diet (including conspecific prey) induced the exaggerated trophic features of the “cannibal” morph in this species. These results illustrate that ingestion of different types of prey contributes to plasticity in head shape, but that some other proximate cue(s), either alone or in combination with diet variation, is essential to induce the extremes of trophic polymorphism in this species.

Key words

Ambystoma Diet Morphology Phenotypic plasticity