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Safe as a cave? Intraspecific aggressiveness rises in predator-devoid and resource-depleted environments

Melotto, Andrea, Ficetola, Gentile Francesco, Manenti, Raoul
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2019 v.73 no.5 pp. 68
Salamandra salamandra, aggression, cannibalism, habitats, larvae, predation, predators, rearing, risk, salamanders and newts
Intraspecific aggressiveness can be affected by multiple environmental pressures. In several cases, aggressiveness can grade into full-scale cannibalism, particularly when resources are scarce. However, limited information exists on how intraspecific aggressiveness varies among populations experiencing different environmental pressures, and on the role intraspecific predation plays for the exploitation of harsh habitats. The fire salamander, Salamandra salamandra, is an excellent model species to study factors affecting intraspecific aggressiveness, because of its ability to breed in habitats with contrasting food resources and predation pressure. Here, we evaluated the influence of predation risk and habitat of origin on aggressive interactions. To this extent, we reared larvae from cave (scarce resources; nearly-absent predators) and surface (abundant resources and predators) populations under different risk conditions and measured aggressive behavior towards conspecifics. During behavioral trials, larvae were exposed to different combinations of predator and wounded conspecific chemical cues. Intraspecific aggressiveness increased in large and late-development larvae. Larvae from all the populations significantly reduced aggressiveness under both typologies of risk experienced during rearing (constant presence of predator; pulses of high predation risk), and also when stimulated by predator cues. However, larvae from cave populations exhibited a more pronounced aggressiveness, especially when exposed to wounded conspecific cues. Intraspecific aggressiveness can be modulated by the complex interaction between multiple variables, and both behavioral plasticity and local adaptations can determine its variation across populations. Our findings reveal that aggressive interactions are favored in cave environment, suggesting intraspecific predation can play a key role in the exploitation of resource-depleted habitats. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: In this study, we investigated how intraspecific aggressiveness of salamander larvae is shaped under predation risk in populations originating from contrasting environments, such as cave and surface habitats. Larvae experiencing predator presence during their development or exposed to predator cues significantly reduced their aggressive interactions, both in cave and surface populations. Interestingly, cave-originating individuals reacted to wounded conspecific cues by increasing the frequency of their aggressive displays, suggesting cannibalistic behavior is locally enhanced in populations from resource-depleted habitats. The present study offers new insights on the importance of intraspecific aggressiveness for the adaptation to harsh environments.