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Keywords:

  • adaptive individual variation;
  • body condition;
  • diet switch;
  • fitness cost;
  • food digestibility;
  • food type;
  • gastrointestinal tract length;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • stable isotope analysis

Resource polymorphisms, intraspecific variation in morphology due to differential resource use, are common across a wide range of animal taxa. The focus in studies of such polymorphisms has been on external morphology, but the differential use of food resources could also influence other phenotypic traits such as the digestive performance. In the present study, we experimentally demonstrate that Eurasian perch (Perca fluviatilis L.) display adaptive plasticity in gut length when exposed to different food types. Perch fed a less digestible food type developed relatively longer guts compared to fish fed a more easily digested food type. This divergence in gut length was also apparent under natural conditions because perch inhabiting the littoral and pelagic habitats of a lake differed in resource use and relative gut length. Despite that the digestive system in perch is plastic, we found that individuals switching to a novel food type might experience an initial fitness cost of the diet switch in the form of a temporary reduction in body condition. These results show the importance of gut length plasticity for an ontogenetic omnivore but also a cost that might prevent diet switching in polymorphic populations. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 90, 517–523.