When important ecological factors change predictably during the life of an organism, the ontogeny of related behaviors must be timed to maintain appropriate behavioral responsiveness to current ecological conditions. In the brown iguana, Ctenosaura pectinata, hatchlings in natural populations eat primarily insects, consuming little plant matter, whereas adults eat primarily plants, consuming some insects as well. We conducted laboratory experiments on diet preferences and responses to chemical cues that the lizards sampled by tongue-flicking and used to identify food. All hatchlings ate crickets, but only one of six ate romaine lettuce. They responded strongly to chemical cues from prey, as indicated by elevated tongue-flick rates, but not from romaine lettuce. All older individuals ate both crickets and romaine lettuce. They responded much more strongly to chemical cues from both crickets and romaine lettuce than to control chemicals, as indicated by higher proportions of individuals that bit and higher tongue-flick attack scores.

Thus, an ontogenetic change to increased responsiveness to plant chemical stimuli was coordinated with an ontogenetic change to an herbivorous diet. The mechanisms underlying these ontogenetic changes are unknown, but folivory may be unprofitable before juveniles acquire intestinal flora that degrade cellulose by ingestion of feces of adult conspecifics. Possible mechanisms are discussed, including the detection of chemical cues from appropriate food plants during consumption of feces from older individuals. Studies of other squamate reptiles suggest that exposure to these chemicals might affect both future responsiveness to the chemical cues and a tendency to eat the corresponding plants.