VARIATION IN MAYFLY SIZE AT METAMORPHOSIS AS A DEVELOPMENTAL RESPONSE TO RISK OF PREDATION

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Abstract

Animals with complex life cycles often show large variation in the size and timing of metamorphosis in response to environmental variability. If fecundity increases with body size and large individuals are more vulnerable to predation, then organisms may not be able to optimize simultaneously size and timing of metamorphosis. The goals of this study were to measure and explain large-scale spatial and temporal patterns of phenotypic variation in size at metamorphosis of the mayfly, Baetis bicaudatus (Baetidae), from habitats with variable levels of predation risk. Within a single high-elevation watershed in western Colorado, USA, from 1994 to 1996 we measured dry masses of mature larvae of the overwintering and summer generations of Baetis at 28 site-years in streams with and without predatory fish (trout). We also estimated larval growth rates and development times at 16 site-years. Patterns of spatial variation in mayfly size could not be explained by resource (algae) standing stock, competitor densities, or physical–chemical variables. However, size at metamorphosis of males and females of summer generation Baetis was smaller in fish streams than in fishless streams and decreased as densities of predatory stoneflies increased. Furthermore, overwintering individuals matured at larger sizes than summer generation Baetis, and the size of emerging Baetis declined over the summer, but predominantly in trout streams. Theoretical consideration of the effect of predation risk on size and timing of metamorphosis accurately predicted the observed temporal variation in size and timing of mayflies at emergence in fish and fishless streams. Baetis populations had similar growth rates but followed different developmental trajectories in high and low risk environments. In risky environments larval development was accelerated, resulting in metamorphosis of younger and smaller individuals, minimizing exposure of larvae to risk of mortality from trout predation, but at the cost of future reproduction. In safe environments, larvae extended their development, resulting in larger, more fecund adults. Thus, we propose that large-scale patterns of variation in size and timing of metamorphosis represent adaptive phenotypic plasticity, whereby mayflies respond to variation in risk of predation, thereby maximizing their fitness in variable environments.

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