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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Modality matters for the expression of inducible defenses: introducing a concept of predator modality

Quirin Herzog1 and Christian Laforsch2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology II, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Großhadernerstr. 2, Planegg-Martinsried 82152, Germany

2 Department of Animal Ecology I, University of Bayreuth, Universitätsstr. 30, Bayreuth 95440, Germany

BMC Biology 2013, 11:113  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-11-113

Published: 18 November 2013



Inducible defenses are a common and widespread form of phenotypic plasticity. A fundamental factor driving their evolution is an unpredictable and heterogeneous predation pressure. This heterogeneity is often used synonymously to quantitative changes in predation risk, depending on the abundance and impact of predators. However, differences in ‘modality’, that is, the qualitative aspect of natural selection caused by predators, can also cause heterogeneity. For instance, predators of the small planktonic crustacean Daphnia have been divided into two functional groups of predators: vertebrates and invertebrates. Predators of both groups are known to cause different defenses, yet predators of the same group are considered to cause similar responses. In our study we question that thought and address the issue of how multiple predators affect the expression and evolution of inducible defenses.


We exposed D. barbata to chemical cues released by Triops cancriformis and Notonecta glauca, respectively. We found for the first time that two invertebrate predators induce different shapes of the same morphological defensive traits in Daphnia, rather than showing gradual or opposing reaction norms. Additionally, we investigated the adaptive value of those defenses in direct predation trials, pairing each morphotype (non-induced, Triops-induced, Notonecta-induced) against the other two and exposed them to one of the two predators. Interestingly, against Triops, both induced morphotypes offered equal protection. To explain this paradox we introduce a ‘concept of modality’ in multipredator regimes. Our concept categorizes two-predator-prey systems into three major groups (functionally equivalent, functionally inverse and functionally diverse). Furthermore, the concept includes optimal responses and costs of maladaptions of prey phenotypes in environments where both predators co-occur or where they alternate.


With D. barbata, we introduce a new multipredator-prey system with a wide array of morphological inducible defenses. Based on a ‘concept of modality’, we give possible explanations how evolution can favor specialized defenses over a general defense. Additionally, our concept not only helps to classify different multipredator-systems, but also stresses the significance of costs of phenotype-environment mismatching in addition to classic ‘costs of plasticity’. With that, we suggest that ‘modality’ matters as an important factor in understanding and explaining the evolution of inducible defenses.