New effects of Roundup on amphibians: Predators reduce herbicide mortality; herbicides induce antipredator morphology


  • Corresponding Editor (ad hoc): D. W. Sparling.


The use of pesticides is important for growing crops and protecting human health by reducing the prevalence of targeted pest species. However, less attention is given to the potential unintended effects on nontarget species, including taxonomic groups that are of current conservation concern. One issue raised in recent years is the potential for pesticides to become more lethal in the presence of predatory cues, a phenomenon observed thus far only in the laboratory. A second issue is whether pesticides can induce unintended trait changes in nontarget species, particularly trait changes that might mimic adaptive responses to natural environmental stressors. Using outdoor mesocosms, I created simple wetland communities containing leaf litter, algae, zooplankton, and three species of tadpoles (wood frogs [Rana sylvatica or Lithobates sylvaticus], leopard frogs [R. pipiens or L. pipiens], and American toads [Bufo americanus or Anaxyrus americanus]). I exposed the communities to a factorial combination of environmentally relevant herbicide concentrations (0, 1, 2, or 3 mg acid equivalents [a.e.]/L of Roundup Original MAX) crossed with three predator-cue treatments (no predators, adult newts [Notophthalmus viridescens], or larval dragonflies [Anax junius]). Without predator cues, mortality rates from Roundup were consistent with past studies. Combined with cues from the most risky predator (i.e., dragonflies), Roundup became less lethal (in direct contrast to past laboratory studies). This reduction in mortality was likely caused by the herbicide stratifying in the water column and predator cues scaring the tadpoles down to the benthos where herbicide concentrations were lower. Even more striking was the discovery that Roundup induced morphological changes in the tadpoles. In wood frog and leopard frog tadpoles, Roundup induced relatively deeper tails in the same direction and of the same magnitude as the adaptive changes induced by dragonfly cues. To my knowledge, this is the first study to show that a pesticide can induce morphological changes in a vertebrate. Moreover, the data suggest that the herbicide might be activating the tadpoles' developmental pathways used for antipredator responses. Collectively, these discoveries suggest that the world's most widely applied herbicide may have much further-reaching effects on nontarget species than previous considered.