Effects of cover and predator size on survival and development of Ranautricularia tadpoles
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Size-limited predation is an important process during the development of many aquatic species, and mortality rates of early larval stages and small individuals can be particularly high. Structurally complex habitats can mediate predator-prey interactions and provide a potentially important mechanism for decreasing predation pressure on larvae. To determine whether structurally complex habitats mediate predation on tadpoles of the southern leopard frog (Ranautricularia), we designed a factorial experiment, crossing two levels of cover with three predator treatments (none, small, or large Trameacarolina naiads). Predator size had a larger effect on tadpole performance (survival, mass and age at metamorphosis) than did cover level, largely because small predators were ineffective. Within the large-predator treatment, however, tadpole survival was higher (78%) under high than under low cover (46%), suggesting that increased cover decreased predator foraging efficiency allowing more larvae to reach a size refuge. This study demonstrates that habitat structural complexity can play an important role in mediating predator-prey interactions, even when tadpoles start out at a size disadvantage relative to predators. Consideration of habitat structural complexity in future research should provide a more complete understanding of the role of size relationships in predator-prey systems.
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