Phenotypic plasticity provides means for adapting to environmental unpredictability. In terms of accelerated development in the face of pond-drying risk, phenotypic plasticity has been demonstrated in many amphibian species, but two issues of evolutionary interest remain unexplored. First, the heritable basis of plastic responses is poorly established. Second, it is not known whether interpopulational differences in capacity to respond to pond-drying risk exist, although such differences, when matched with differences in desiccation risk would provide strong evidence for local adaptation. We investigated sources of within- and among-population variation in plastic responses to simulated pond-drying risk (three desiccation treatments) in two Rana temporaria populations originating from contrasting environments: (1) high desiccation risk with weak seasonal time constraint (southern population); and (2) low desiccation risk with severe seasonal time constraint (northern population). The larvae originating from the environment with high desiccation risk responded adaptively to the fast decreasing water treatment by accelerating their development and metamorphosing earlier, but this was not the case in the larvae originating from the environment with low desiccation risk. In both populations, metamorphic size was smaller in the high-desiccation-risk treatment, but the effect was larger in the southern population. Significant additive genetic variation in development rate was found in the northern and was nearly significant in the southern population, but there was no evidence for genetic variation in plasticity for development rates in either of the populations. No genetic variation for plasticity was found either in size at metamorphosis or growth rate. All metamorphic traits were heritable, and additive genetic variances were generally somewhat higher in the southern population, although significantly so in only one trait. Dominance variances were also significant in three of four traits, but the populations did not differ. Maternal effects in metamorphic traits were generally weak in both populations. Within-environment phenotypic correlations between larval period and metamorphic size were positive and genetic correlations negative in both populations. These results suggest that adaptive phenotypic plasticity is not a species-specific fixed trait, but evolution of interpopulational differences in plastic responses are possible, although heritability of plasticity appears to be low. The lack of adaptive response to desiccation risk in northern larvae is consistent with the interpretation that selection imposed by shorter growing season has favored rapid development in north (∼8% faster development in north as compared to south) or a minimum metamorphic size at the expense of phenotypic plasticity.
Corresponding Editor: G. Wallis