Predation risk is an important contributor to community structure that varies in response to abiotic and biotic factors. In aquatic habitats, predation risk is often linked to hydroperiod as the latter directly influences predator identity within these ecosystems. For pond-breeding salamanders, intraguild predation (IGP) and cannibalism are prevalent interactions in larval communities, but the frequency of each type of agonistic interaction, as well as changes in their pervasiveness along hydroperiod gradients are not well understood. Size-structured populations of aquatic life stages (paedomorphic adults and overwintered larvae) of mole salamanders (Ambystoma talpoideum) have the potential to be dominant IG predators and cannibals in permanent ponds because of large size advantages over successive cohorts, but the species exists as only a single larval cohort in temporary ponds with reduced predatory abilities on guild members. Thus, both the potential for and intensity of predation by this species is linked to hydroperiod; yet, the predatory abilities of aquatic life stages of mole salamanders have not been evaluated. This study examined the extent to which larger size classes (paedomorphs and overwintered larvae) of mole salamanders preyed upon conspecifics and a congeneric competitor, the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum). Predation trials occurred in indoor microcosms and were executed under two habitat treatments that included pseudo-natural conditions containing alternate prey and refugia, as well as simplified environments (no alternative food or cover). Embryos or hatchlings of mole and spotted salamanders were exposed either separately or concurrently to paedomorphic and overwintered larval mole salamanders in each habitat treatment. Additionally, overwintered larvae were offered as prey to paedomorphic adults. No significant differences in mortality were observed between habitat treatments (complex versus simple) for either embryo or hatchling predation experiments. Mortality of mole and spotted embryos did not differ when they were offered separately or together, but paedomorphs caused significantly higher mortality among mole embryos compared to spotted embryos. Hatchlings of both species were heavily preyed upon (nearly 100% in all trials), but overwintered larvae exhibited 100% survival with paedomorph predators, indicating size-thresholds of predation risk that were not species specific. Paedomorphs and overwintered larvae therefore are most likely generalist predators that feed equally and effectively on hatchlings of co-occurring species, but are more likely to consume egg masses that do not incur significant handling costs. When present, paedomorphs or overwintered larvae have the potential to alter population dynamics of both guild members and conspecifics by being dominant predators on early life stages. As the prevalence of overwintering and paedomorphosis varies along hydroperiod gradients, predation risk from this species is likely to occur discontinuously and thereby may be an important, yet variable, structuring force.
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Vol. 2013 • No. 2