Dr Francisco Javier Zamora‐Camacho talks about his new paper, Failed predator attacks have detrimental effects on antipredatory capabilities through developmental plasticity in Pelobates cultripes toads, what prompted him to do this research and how this work differs from other work in this area.
About the research
What is the background behind your paper?
In most animals, locomotor performance is key for evading predators. However, even failed predator attacks have been found to reduce locomotor performance, often by damaging the body structures associated with locomotion. This damage may persist throughout an organism’s life history, having lifelong impacts. However, how damage inflicted during one life stage affected locomotor performance in a subsequent life stage had never been tested.
What’s your paper about?
In our article, we demonstrate across-stage negative effects of simulated predator attacks in a toad. Specifically, we showed that partial tail loss in toad larvae results in metamorphs with reduced locomotor performance. Tadpoles often lose a part of their tails due to failed predator attacks, frequently by actively deflecting such attacks to their tails as a mechanism to avoid damage to more vital body parts. Tadpole locomotor performance is impaired by this loss. But, the materials contained in tadpole tail are also important in the construction of the metamorph body, since the tail is resorbed at the latter stages of metamorphosis. Our results suggest that tail-clipped tadpoles result in shorter-limbed metamorphs, which would result in reduced locomotor performance. Thus, both tadpoles and metamorphs can face reduced survivorship in response to a failed predator attack during the larval stage.
How did you come up with the idea for it?
We have a background in the study of ecological interactions in general, and specifically the role of predator pressure on behaviour and locomotion of amphibian larvae. We detected that, although the effects of tail loss on tadpole locomotion had been well studied, there was a knowledge gap regarding the potential across-stage effect of failed predation events on post-metamorphic stages.
Did you have any problems setting up the experiment?
The experiment was quite smooth. Indeed, it was smoother than expected for such an invasive and delicate procedure! However, the glue we used to stain the wounds dries fast and is resistant. This quality is great to rapidly stop bleeding, but you should also consider it before you touch your valuable stuff with your gloves covered in glue…
How is your paper different from other work in this area?
We think that the hypothesis we present and test in this article is innovative, and provides an original insight into the non-lethal effects of predator attacks on their victims. Indeed, to our knowledge, our research is the first to show across-stage negative effects of failed predation events on locomotion, which is particularly important in animals with complex life cycles like toads. Most interestingly, in toads, the structure responsible for locomotion during the larval stage, the tail, is not present in the body plan of the subsequent post-metamorphic stages. So, one might easily predict that tail losses would have no affect on the later metamorphic stages.
Where you surprised by anything when working on it?
Working on animal ecology always hides surprises. The hypothesis we were testing was attractive and sensible, but it was also risky and the chances of failing to find evidence to support the hypothesis were high. Just finding support for our hypothesis was exciting. And, so was learning about the capacity of tadpoles to survive the loss of such a substantial portion of their body.
What does your work contribute to the field?
Our work provides insight regarding the limitations of developmental plasticity to buffer the consequences of ecological interactions. This approach is novel and fills an important knowledge gap regarding not only mid-term, but across-stage consequences of negative ecological interactions, namely predation, on traits that are key to survival, namely locomotor performance traits.
Why is it important?
In our opinion, all science is important because it enhances knowledge. Our article provides novel evidence on an innovative hypothesis with relevant ecological consequences that has long been neglected. But, most importantly, we think that it is relevant because it can inspire new research and promote the creation of new science, not only in this area, but also in other fields where our approach might stimulate a new line of thinking.
What are the key messages of your article?
From our point of view, the main message of our article is that the effects of ecological interactions may persist not only in time, but also across life stages. Particularly in animals that undergo a metamorphosis, dramatic changes in body plan do not necessarily ensure that any damage inflicted during the pre-metamorphic stages will not affect the post-metamorphic stages. However, evolutionary ecologists in general must bear in mind that predator attacks may have negative effects affecting beyond developmental maturation.
Who should read your paper?
In our opinion, our paper advances knowledge on the effects of a basic and ubiquitous ecological relationship such as predation. Therefore, most evolutionary ecologists will find it interesting and inspiring for their own research. Moreover, the results in this article can be useful for conservation biologists, and particularly for personnel working on captive-breeding reintroduction programmes. In these programmes, animals can be damaged during manipulation or as a consequence of conspecific aggressions. Although this article is focused on predation, which is mostly likely to drive tadpole partial tail loss in nature, it also sheds light on the consequences of similar damages in captivity.
Did your work raise any new research questions?
An interesting open question arising from this paper relates to the impact on predator fitness of the prey population.
About The Author
What’s your current position?
I am currently transitioning between a postdoctoral position at Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (Madrid, Spain) to another at Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH, USA).
What is the best thing about being an ecologist?
A narrow contact with Nature from many points of view.
What is the worst thing about being an ecologist?
In my country, it is the scarce money allocated to support Basic Science.
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