Intermorph breeding and the potential for reproductive isolation in polymorphic mole salamanders (Ambystoma talpoideum)

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The study of reproductive isolation as a prerequisite to sympatric speciation has been limited by the focus on species that have already experienced such isolation. However, a complete understanding of how such processes evolve depends on observing taxa before they complete the speciation process. We studied the potential for sexual isolation in the polyphenic mole salamander, Ambystoma talpoideum, using a series of laboratory and field experiments. This species consists of aquatic paedomorphic adults and terrestrial metamorphic adults which are exhibited by both sexes and which mate in the same aquatic habitat. Previous field studies on this species suggested that intermorph breeding would be less common during the winter months, because paedomorphic adults begin breeding in early autumn and thus may have less energy available for reproduction in the winter. Laboratory experiments conducted during the winter showed that the mating behavior of paedomorphic males occurred at a much lower frequency than that of metamorphic males. In contrast, field experiments that best mimicked natural conditions revealed symmetric intermorph breeding and included multiple paternity shared among males of each morph. This and other studies suggest that there is little evidence of sexual isolation among morphs based on behavioral interactions alone. However, the potential for partial isolation still occurs because of temporal and spatial differences in the frequencies of each morph in nature. Our results suggest that further studies on this system, and other similar polyphenisms, may provide valuable insight into the mechanisms that underlie the evolution of reproductive isolation.

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