Diet, development and the optimization of warning signals in post-metamorphic green and black poison frogs


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  1. Many prey species are chemically defended and have conspicuous appearance to deter predators (i.e. aposematism). Such warning signals work because predators pay attention to the colour and size of signals, which they associate with unprofitability.
  2. Paradoxically, in early life stages, aposematic species are often warningly coloured, but their chemical defences are lacking because they have yet to be acquired through the diet or synthesized endogenously. This state of being conspicuous yet poorly defended must place individuals at increased risk of predation, but how they minimize this risk during development is unclear.
  3. We reared larval green and black poison frogs (Dendrobates auratus) on a relatively low or a higher food supply and tested the hypothesis that individuals with more resources should grow larger while reducing their investment in warning signals at metamorphic completion. We also assayed markers of oxidative balance (malondialdehyde, superoxide dismutase and total antioxidant capacity) to ascertain whether there were resource-allocation trade-offs that differed with diet treatments.
  4. Low-food froglets were relatively small, and their body size and signal luminance (perceived brightness) were positively correlated. In contrast, in high-food froglets body size and warning signal luminance were negatively correlated, suggesting either a resource-allocation trade-off or alternatively a facultative reduction in luminance exhibited by larger froglets.
  5. The reduction in luminance in relatively large, high-food froglets did not appear to arise because of oxidative stress: signal luminance and markers of oxidative stress were positively correlated in high-food froglets, but were negatively correlated in low-food froglets suggesting a trade-off.
  6. Our results highlight developmental plasticity in body size and coloration as affected by resource (i.e. food) supply. Such plasticity seems likely to minimize predation risk during the vulnerable period early in life when individuals are warningly coloured and must make the transition from an undefended phenotype to a mature aposematic state.