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Ontogenetic plasticity of food habits in the Mexican spiny-tailed iguana, Ctenosaura pectinata


Ontogenetic shifts from insect consumption by juveniles to plant consumption by adults are rare in the herbivorous lizard family Iguanidae. My investigations on diet and digestive tract anatomy of the iguanid lizard Ctenosaura pectinata show that this species has an ontogenetic diet shift. Insects were rare in adult diets but constituted 86.5% (by volume) of the food eaten by the smallest juveniles. All age classes ate some plant parts from a range of plant types, but flowers and leaves of legumes were a primarily food source. Non-adult lizards had the widest food niche breadths. Arthropods in the diet of juveniles and immatures covaried seasonally with the decline of arthropod abundance. Several hypotheses could explain this ontogenetic plasticity in diet. I rejected hypotheses that gut structure constrained juveniles to an arthropod diet and that insect consumption was purely an artifact of plant consumption because (1) size-adjusted gut morphology and capacity was similar among age classes, and (2) no food plants sampled had an excessive density of arthropods. I supported an alternative hypothesis that juveniles can eat plants but do not because insects provide a more nutritious diet. This conclusion was based on the observation that the juvenile hindgut is similar to that of herbivorous adults, and the propensity for juveniles to consume primarily, but not exclusively, insects when they were most abundant. The hindgut represents the site of fermentative plant fiber breakdown in many herbivorous lizards. Insect foods can compensate for size-related nutritional needs (energy and protein) and digestive limitations in juveniles. Opportunistic feeding to maintain a broad diet might help juvenile and immature lizards through high-predation-risk growth periods by reducing searching costs, increasing nutritional and energetic gains due to associative effects, and increasing new food exposure.

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Received: 20 January 1999 / Accepted: 25 January 2000

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Durtsche, R. Ontogenetic plasticity of food habits in the Mexican spiny-tailed iguana, Ctenosaura pectinata . Oecologia 124, 185–195 (2000).

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  • Key words Diet shift
  • Food availability
  • Gut structure
  • Herbivory
  • Reptiles