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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Predator mediated selection and the impact of developmental stage on viability in wood frog tadpoles (Rana sylvatica)

Ryan Calsbeek12* and Shawn Kuchta13

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755 USA

2 National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Durham, NC 27606 USA

3 Department of Biological Sciences, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701 USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:353  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-353

Published: 7 December 2011



Complex life histories require adaptation of a single organism for multiple ecological niches. Transitions between life stages, however, may expose individuals to an increased risk of mortality, as the process of metamorphosis typically includes developmental stages that function relatively poorly in both the pre- and post-metamorphic habitat. We studied predator-mediated selection on tadpoles of the wood frog, Rana sylvatica, to identify this hypothesized period of differential predation risk and estimate its ontogenetic onset. We reared tadpoles in replicated mesocosms in the presence of the larval odonate Anax junius, a known tadpole predator.


The probability of tadpole survival increased with increasing age and size, but declined steeply at the point in development where hind limbs began to erupt from the body wall. Selection gradient analyses indicate that natural selection favored tadpoles with short, deep tail fins. Tadpoles resorb their tails as they progress toward metamorphosis, which may have led to the observed decrease in survivorship. Path models revealed that selection acted directly on tail morphology, rather than through its indirect influence on swimming performance.


This is consistent with the hypothesis that tail morphology influences predation rates by reducing the probability a predator strikes the head or body.