, Volume 85, Issue 1, pp 101–107

The adaptive significance of an environmentally-cued developmental switch in an anuran tadpole

  • David Pfennig
Original Papers

DOI: 10.1007/BF00317349

Cite this article as:
Pfennig, D. Oecologia (1990) 85: 101. doi:10.1007/BF00317349


This study investigated the proximate basis of bimodally-distributed, environmentally-induced variation that occurs in natural populations of spade-foot toad tadpoles (Scaphiopus multiplicatus). Most individuals in most populations occur as a small, slowly-developing omnivore morph. In some of these same populations, a varying number of individuals occur as a large, rapidly-developing carnivore morph (Pfennig 1989). Censuses of 37 different natural ponds revealed that the frequency of the faster-developing carnivore morph correlated significantly positively with fairy shrimp density (their chief prey) and pond drying rate. By simultaneously varying two diet components and pond drying regime in artificial pools I found that only fairy shrimp density significantly affected the proportion of carnivores. Separate experiments established that the extent to which tadpoles developed the carnivore morphology correlated with shrimp density, and that morph determination depended on the ingestion of shrimp, not simply their presence. If a critical number of shrimp were ingested, the tadpole developed into a carnivore; if not, the tadpole developed by default into an omnivore. Thus a single cue — shrimp ingestion — triggers alternative ontogenetic trajectories. Using shrimp density to induce morph differentiation enables tadpoles to respond to their environment adaptively as shrimp are most abundant in highly ephemeral ponds, where the faster developing carnivores are favored.

Key words

Causes of polyphenism Adaptive plasticity Trophic polymorphism Developmental strategies Phenotypic plasticity 

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Pfennig
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of TexasAustinUSA
  2. 2.Department of ZoologyArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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