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Temporal environmental variation and phenotypic plasticity: a mechanism underlying priority effects


  • Jason T. Hoverman,

  • Rick A. Relyea

J. T. Hoverman ( and R. A. Relyea, Dept of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA. Present address for JTH: 274 Ellington Plant Sciences Building, Dept of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries, Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996-4563, USA.


Understanding the role of history in the formation of communities has been a major challenge in community ecology. Here, we explore the role of phenotypic plasticity and its associated trait-mediated indirect interactions as a mechanism behind priority effects. Using organisms with inducible defenses as a model system, we examine how aquatic communities initially containing different predator environments are affected at the individual and community level by the colonization of a second predator. Snails and tadpoles were established in four different caged-predator environments (no predator, fish, crayfish or water bugs). These four communities were then crossed with three predator colonization treatments (no colonization, early colonization, or late colonization) using lethal water bugs as the predator. The snails responded to the caged predator environments with predator-specific behavioral and morphological defenses. In the colonization treatments, snails possessing the wrong phenotype attempted to induce phenotypic changes to defend themselves against the new risk. However, snails initially induced by a different predator environment often suffered high predation rates. Hence, temporal variation in predation risk not only challenged the snail prey to try to track this environmental variation through time by adjusting their defensive phenotypes, but also caused trait-mediated interactions between snails and the colonizing predator. For tadpoles within these communities, there was little evidence that the morphological responses of snails indirectly effected tadpole predation rates by colonizing water bugs. Unexpectedly, predation rates on tadpoles by colonizing water bugs were generally higher in the three caged-predator treatments, suggesting that water bugs elevated their foraging activity in response to potentially competing predators. In summary, we demonstrate an important priority effect in which the initial occurrence of one species of predator can facilitate predation by a second predator that colonizes at a later date (i.e. a TMII) suggesting that phenotypic plasticity can be an important driver behind priority effects (i.e. historical exposure to predators).