The advantage of no defense: predation enhances cohort survival in a desert amphibian
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The impacts that predators have on prey behavior, growth, survival, and ultimately the composition of many ecological communities are mediated by prey defenses and the susceptibility of prey to predators. We hypothesized that prey populations inhabiting short-lived, species-poor, aquatic environments should lack significant morphological, developmental, and behavioral responses to predators and are therefore highly susceptible to predation. Furthermore, we predicted that the resultant decrease in prey density and increase in per capita resources due to high susceptibility to predators should enhance overall cohort survival because of enhanced growth of surviving prey. To test these ideas, we performed laboratory and outdoor mesocosm experiments to disentangle multiple effects of predators on an anuran (Scaphiopus couchii); a species highly adapted to breeding in ephemeral habitats and that has one of the shortest larval periods of all anurans. Chemical (presence of predator) and lethal predator cues (predator plus consumed conspecific) elicited no response in behavior, development, or morphology, indicating a lack of defensive mechanisms. Survivorship was significantly reduced in treatments where tadpoles were exposed to predators. However, this reduction in prey density led to accelerated time to metamorphosis, conferring an advantage to survivors who must metamorphose before ephemeral ponds dry. Our experiments demonstrated that in short-lived environments, prey may exhibit little or no response to the presence of predators presumably because selection for anti-predator defenses is countered by selection for rapid metamorphosis. However, predation actually resulted in an increase in overall cohort survival. Although predators are relatively rare in highly ephemeral aquatic environments, they may play an important role in facilitating the long-term persistence of their prey by reducing prey density. 2011 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.