Evolutionary reduction of developmental plasticity in desert spadefoot toads


Daniel R. Buchholz, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH 45221, USA.
Tel.: +1 513 556 9725; fax: +1 513 556 5299; e-mail: buchhodr@ucmail.uc.edu


Organisms vary their rates of growth and development in response to environmental inputs. Such developmental plasticity may be adaptive and positively correlate with environmental heterogeneity. However, the evolution of developmental plasticity among closely related taxa is not well understood. To determine the evolutionary pattern of plasticity, we compared plasticity in time to and size at metamorphosis in response to water desiccation in tadpoles among spadefoot species that differ in breeding pond and larval period durations. Like most tadpoles, spadefoot tadpoles possess the remarkable ability to accelerate development in response to pond drying to avoid desiccation. Here, we hypothesize that desert spadefoot tadpoles have evolved reduced plasticity to avoid desiccation in ephemeral desert pools compared to their nondesert relatives that breed in long-duration ponds. We recorded time to and size at metamorphosis following experimental manipulation of water levels and found that desert-adapted species had much less plasticity in larval period and size at metamorphosis than nondesert species, which retain the hypothetical ancestral state of plasticity. Furthermore, we observed a correlation between degree of plasticity and fat body content that may provide mechanistic insights into the evolution of developmental plasticity in amphibians.