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Northern natterjack toads (Bufo calamita) select breeding habitats that promote rapid development

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It is generally believed that harsh climate inhibits growth and development of ectotherms at high latitudes. However, this environmental effect may be counterbalanced by countergradient genetic variation and habitat selection. While there is laboratory evidence for genetically based increases in growth and development rates in amphibians living at high latitudes, it remains unclear how environmental and genetic effects combine in the field to produce gradients of phenotypic variation. We performed a field study on the growth and development of tadpoles and habitat selection of breeding adults of the natterjack toad (Bufo calamita) in Denmark and in Estonia where the average onset of breeding differs by 12 days. Although growth and development of Estonian tadpoles trailed Danish conspecifics during the first half of the larval period, Estonian tadpoles caught up in both body length and developmental stage to Danish tadpoles in the last third of the larval period. Breeding ponds in Denmark were significantly larger and deeper than in Estonia, however, the water temperatures in the ponds did not vary substantially between the countries. In Estonia the toads selected shallower breeding ponds with higher temperature and oxygen concentrations, suggesting, that at higher latitudes active selection of specific water bodies ensures faster growth and development of larvae. The results, together with previous laboratory evidence, indicate that amphibian distribution limits are shaped both by adaptive differences in developmental rates and behavioural plasticity. To cope with harsh climates, amphibians in the north apparently require shallow water bodies — a habitat particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic degradation.

Affiliations: 1: aInstitute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, University of Tartu, Vanemuise 46, 51014 Tartu, Estonia; 2: bAmphi Consult, International Sciencepark Odense, Forskerparken 10, DK-5230 Odense M, Denmark

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