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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Streambed microstructure predicts evolution of development and life history mode in the plethodontid salamander Eurycea tynerensis

Ronald M Bonett12* and Paul T Chippindale1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington TX 76019, USA

2 Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA

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BMC Biology 2006, 4:6  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-4-6

Published: 2 March 2006

Abstract

Background

Habitat variation strongly influences the evolution of developmentally flexible traits, and may drive speciation and diversification. The plethodontid salamander Eurycea tynerensis is endemic to the geologically diverse Ozark Plateau of south-central North America, and comprises both strictly aquatic paedomorphic populations (achieving reproductive maturity while remaining in the larval form) and more terrestrial metamorphic populations. The switch between developmental modes has occurred many times, but populations typically exhibit a single life history mode. This unique system offers an opportunity to study the specific ecological circumstances under which alternate developmental and life history modes evolve. We use phylogenetic independent contrasts to test for relationships between a key microhabitat feature (streambed sediment) and this major life history polymorphism.

Results

We find streambed microstructure (sediment particle size, type and degree of sorting) to be highly correlated with life-history mode. Eurycea tynerensis is paedomorphic in streams containing large chert gravel, but metamorphoses in nearby streams containing poorly sorted, clastic material such as sandstone or siltstone.

Conclusion

Deposits of large chert gravel create loosely associated streambeds, which provide access to subsurface water during dry summer months. Conversely, streambeds composed of more densely packed sandstone and siltstone sediments leave no subterranean refuge when surface water dries, presumably necessitating metamorphosis and use of terrestrial habitats. This represents a clear example of the relationship between microhabitat structure and evolution of a major developmental and life history trait, and has broad implications for the role of localized ecological conditions on larger-scale evolutionary processes.