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Microgeographic adaptations of spotted salamander morphological defenses in response to a predaceous salamander and beetle


M. C. Urban, Dept of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ. of Connecticut; 75 North Eagleville Rd., Unit 3043 Storrs, CT 06269, USA. E-mail:


Spatial heterogeneity in the selection imposed by different predator species could promote the adaptive diversification of local prey populations. However, high gene flow might swamp local adaptations at limited spatial scales or generalized phenotypic plasticity might evolve in place of local diversification. Spotted salamander larvae Ambystoma maculatum face strongly varying risks from gape-limited marbled salamander larvae Ambystoma opacum and gape-unconstrained diving beetle larvae Dytiscus spp. across natural landscapes. To evaluate if A. maculatum adapts to these predation risk across micro-geographic scales, I measured selection gradients in response to the two focal predators and then assayed the defensive morphologies of ten populations in a common garden experiment. I found that A. opacum induced selection on A. maculatum for larger tailfins and bodies whereas beetles induced selection for larger tail muscles and smaller bodies. In accordance with the local adaptation hypothesis, A. maculatum populations inhabiting ponds with high beetle densities grew larger tail muscles relative to other populations when raised in a common environment. However, populations exposed to strong A. opacum selection did not evolve larger tailfins as predicted. High gene flow or morphological plasticity could explain the absence of this morphological response to A. opacum. Overall, results suggest that populations can sometimes evolve adaptive traits in response to locally variable selection regimes even across the very limited distances that separate populations in this study. If prey populations often differ in their defenses against local predators, then this variation could affect the outcome of species interactions in local communities.