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Journal of Experimental Biology partnership with Dryad

Influence of tail shape on tadpole swimming performance
J. Van Buskirk, S.A. McCollum

Summary

Many tadpoles respond to insect predators by developing deeper, and sometimes longer, tails. It has been assumed that the larger tail enhances aspects of swimming performance, because deep-tailed tadpoles survive well when confronted with hunting predators. We tested this hypothesis using both naturally occurring and surgically created variation in tail morphology of Hyla versicolor tadpoles. We measured swimming performance (maximum speed, time to reach a 2.5 cm radius, and angle of escape) and morphology (size and shape of the body and tail) in 288 tadpoles, of which half possessed the predator-induced morphology and the other half were from predator-free ponds. Large tadpoles swam faster than small ones, and shape was significantly correlated with size-corrected swimming performance. The fastest tadpoles had relatively shallow bodies and tail fins, and short tails; there was no difference in swimming performance between predator-induced and no-predator tadpoles. We performed an experiment to create independent variation in tail depth and length by surgically manipulating tail shape in 270 tadpoles. Three tail-length treatments reduced the length of the tail fin by 21 %, 34 % and 55 %; three tail-depth treatments reduced the maximum depth of the tail fin by 11 %, 34 % and 59 %; two additional treatments controlled for the effects of anaesthesia and surgery. The angle of escape was unaffected by surgery. Maximum speed and minimum escape time were both significantly impaired by the high-removal treatments, but showed no evidence of decline until 30 % of the tail (length or depth) was removed. These results suggest that the relatively deep tails in predator-induced tadpoles (approximately 10 % deeper than in no-predator tadpoles) do not improve performance in burst swimming. Thus, predator-induced tadpoles are less vulnerable to predation for reasons other than enhanced swimming performance.