Population ecology - Original Paper


, Volume 168, Issue 1, pp 109-118

First online:

Larval growth in polyphenic salamanders: making the best of a bad lot

  • H. H. WhitemanAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences and Watershed Studies Institute, Murray State UniversityRocky Mountain Biological Laboratory Email author 
  • , S. A. WissingerAffiliated withBiology and Environmental Science Departments, Allegheny CollegeRocky Mountain Biological Laboratory
  • , M. DenoëlAffiliated withLaboratory of Fish and Amphibian Ethology, Behavioural Biology Unit, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of LiègeRocky Mountain Biological Laboratory
  • , C. J. MecklinAffiliated withDepartment of Mathematics and Statistics and Watershed Studies Institute, Murray State University
  • , N. M. GerlancAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences and Watershed Studies Institute, Murray State UniversityRocky Mountain Biological Laboratory
  • , J. J. GutrichAffiliated withDepartment of Environmental Studies, Southern Oregon UniversityRocky Mountain Biological Laboratory

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Polyphenisms are excellent models for studying phenotypic variation, yet few studies have focused on natural populations. Facultative paedomorphosis is a polyphenism in which salamanders either metamorphose or retain their larval morphology and eventually become paedomorphic. Paedomorphosis can result from selection for capitalizing on favorable aquatic habitats (paedomorph advantage), but could also be a default strategy under poor aquatic conditions (best of a bad lot). We tested these alternatives by quantifying how the developmental environment influences the ontogeny of wild Arizona tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum nebulosum). Most paedomorphs in our study population arose from slow-growing larvae that developed under high density and size-structured conditions (best of a bad lot), although a few faster-growing larvae also became paedomorphic (paedomorph advantage). Males were more likely to become paedomorphs than females and did so under a greater range of body sizes than females, signifying a critical role for gender in this polyphenism. Our results emphasize that the same phenotype can be adaptive under different environmental and genetic contexts and that studies of phenotypic variation should consider multiple mechanisms of morph production.


Polyphenism Density dependence Size structure Facultative paedomorphosis Ambystoma tigrinum