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Responses of American toad tadpoles to predation cues: behavioural response thresholds, threat-sensitivity and acquired predation recognition

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Predation is one of the most important selective forces acting on prey animals. To respond adaptively to predation threats and increase their chances of survival, prey animals have to be able to recognize their potential predators. Even though a few studies demonstrated innate predator recognition, the vast majority of animals have to rely on learning to acquire this information. Often aquatic prey animals can learn to recognize predators when they detect conspecific alarm cues associated with cues from a novel predator. In this study, we exposed American toad (Bufo americanus) tadpoles to varying concentrations of chemical alarm cues (cues from injured conspecifics). We identified a concentration of cues which caused an overt antipredator response (supra-threshold concentration) and a lower concentration for which the prey failed to exhibit a response (sub-threshold concentration). In a second experiment, we attempted to condition the tadpoles to recognize the odour of larval dragonflies (Anax sp.) by pairing the dragonfly odour with either the sub-threshold concentration or the supra-threshold concentration of alarm cues. In both cases, the tadpoles learned to recognize the predator based on this single pairing of alarm cues and predator odour. Moreover, the intensity of the learned response was stronger for tadpoles conditioned with the supra-threshold concentration of alarm cues than the sub-threshold concentration. This is the first documented case of this mode of learning in anuran amphibians. Learned recognition of predators has important implications for survival.

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