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Ecogeographical variation of body size in the newt Triturus carnifex: comparing the hypotheses using an information-theoretic approach


Gentile Francesco Ficetola, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Milano-Bicocca, Piazza Della Scienza 1, 20126 Milano, Italy.


Aim  Ecogeographical variation of body size in vertebrates (e.g. Bergmann's rule) has long been recognized. However, the patterns and causes of intra-specific ecogeographical variation of body size in ectotherms, and in amphibians in particular, are strongly debated. We identified the relationship between bioclimatic variables and body size predicted a priori by alternative hypotheses (heat balance, endurance, seasonality, starvation resistance, water availability, primary productivity, parental investment) proposed to explain ecogeographical patterns of body size in ectotherms, and we evaluated the relative support of these hypotheses in explaining variation in body size of the Italian crested newt, Triturus carnifex.

Location  Twenty-three populations covering the whole range of T. carnifex (Austria, Croatia, Italy and Slovenia).

Methods  We obtained data on body size (snout–vent length, SVL) of 2639 adult newts from direct measurements and the literature; we obtained high-resolution environmental data for the sampled localities. We used an information-theoretic approach to evaluate the support of the data for the different hypotheses. We also integrated information on population genetics in our models.

Results  We observed strong geographical variation of body size. The best Akaike information criterion (AIC) models showed that populations with larger body size are associated with cold climates and secondarily with high primary productivity. Furthermore, sexual dimorphism increases in cold climates, as the increase in body size was stronger for females. When taking into account population genetics, we did not find support for relationships with the other variables.

Main conclusion  Our results are consistent with three hypotheses proposed to explain ecogeographical variation in amphibians: heat balance, increased parental investment of females and productivity. Information theory provides the framework for comparing hypotheses rather than looking for patterns. We suggest that evaluating the support for mechanisms can provide better insights than simply assessing whether ecogeographical variation is in agreement with some ‘rule’.