Functional Plasticity in Lamellar Autotomy by Larval Damselflies in Response to Predatory Larval Dragonfly Cues

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Adaptive autotomy is the self-amputation of an appendage in response to external stimuli that benefits survival. Variation in the ease of appendage removal among populations suggests that autotomy performance is under selection, evolves, or is phenotypically plastic, although the latter has never been experimentally tested. We model an autotomy threshold that optimally balances how the benefits of surviving predator attack versus the costs of losing an appendage vary with predator presence. We test for functional plasticity in autotomy threshold in the caudal lamellae of Enallagma damselfly larvae by experimentally manipulating non-lethal cues from predatory dragonfly larvae. Predator cues lead to functional plastic responses in the form of smaller lamellar joints that required lower peak breaking force. This is the first experimental demonstration of functional plasticity in autotomy to cues from a grasping predator, a novel form of indirect predator effects on prey, realized through plasticity in morphological traits that govern the autotomy threshold. This supports the model of optimized autotomy performance and provides a novel explanation for variation in performance among populations under different predator conditions. Plastic autotomy responses that mitigate costs in the face of variation in mortality risks might be a form of inducible defense.


This article was originally published in Evolutionary Ecology, volume 33, in 2019.

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