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Frugal cannibals: how consuming conspecific tissues can provide conditional benefits to wood frog tadpoles (Lithobates sylvaticus)

Abstract

Tadpoles show considerable behavioral plasticity. When population densities become high, tadpoles often become cannibalistic, likely in response to intense competition. Conspecific tissues are potentially an ideal diet by composition and should greatly improve growth and development. However, the potential release of alarm cues from the tissues of injured conspecifics may act to deter potential cannibals from feeding. We conducted multiple feeding experiments to test the relative effects that a diet of conspecifics has on tadpole growth and development. Results indicate that while conspecific tissues represent a better alternative to starvation and provide some benefits over low-protein diets, such a diet can have detrimental effects to tadpole growth and/or development relative to diets of similar protein content. Additionally, tadpoles raised individually appear to avoid consuming conspecific tissues and may continue to do so until they suffer from the effects of starvation. However, tadpoles readily fed upon conspecific tissues immediately when raised with competitors. These results suggest that cannibalism may occur as a result of competition rather than the specific quality of available diets, unless such diets lead to starvation.

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Acknowledgments

DMJ was supported by a Dean’s Scholarship from the University of Saskatchewan. Research funding was provided by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery Grant to DPC and Environment Canada operating funds to KAH. Shelly Fisher and Harrison Moore assisted in field collections, Chantel Showers and Geoff Kohler assisted with stable isotope analyses, David Janz aided in corticosterone analysis and interpretation, and Jill Johnstone and Ronald Russell provided statistical advice. All work was approved by the University of Saskatchewan Animal Ethics Committee under protocols #20100019, #20120026, and #20130040.

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Correspondence to Dale M. Jefferson.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Jefferson, D.M., Hobson, K.A., Demuth, B.S. et al. Frugal cannibals: how consuming conspecific tissues can provide conditional benefits to wood frog tadpoles (Lithobates sylvaticus). Naturwissenschaften 101, 291–303 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-014-1156-4

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-014-1156-4

Keywords

  • Cannibalism
  • Competition
  • Density
  • Diet
  • Tadpole
  • Lithobates sylvaticus