Prey responses to fine-scale variation in predation risk from combined predators

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Abstract

While it is well documented that organisms can express phenotypic plasticity in response to single gradients of environmental variation, our understanding of how organisms integrate information along multiple environmental gradients is limited in many systems. Using the freshwater snail Helisoma trivolvis and two common predators (water bugs Belostoma flumineum and crayfish Orconectes rusticus), we explored how prey integrate information along multiple predation risk gradients (i.e. caged predators fed increasing amounts of prey biomass) that induce opposing phenotypes. When exposed to single predators fed increasing amounts of prey biomass, we detected threshold responses; intermediate amounts of consumed biomass induced phenotypic responses, but higher amounts induced little additional induction. This suggests that additional increases in predator-induced traits with greater predator risk offer minimal increases in fitness or that a limit in the response magnitude was reached. Additionally, the response thresholds were contingent on the predator and focal trait. For shell width, responses were generally detected at a lower amount of consumed biomass by water bugs compared to crayfish. Within the crayfish treatments, we found that the shell thickness response threshold was lower than the shell width response threshold. When we combined gradients of consumed biomass from both predators, we found that the magnitude of response to one predator was often reduced when the other predator was present. Interestingly, these effects were often detected at consumed biomass levels that were lower than the threshold concentration necessary to elicit a response in the single-predator treatments. Moreover, our combined predator treatments revealed that snails shifted from discrete responses to more continuous (i.e. graded) responses. Together, our results reveal that organisms experiencing multiple environmental gradients can integrate this information to make phenotypic decisions and demonstrate the novel result that an exposure to multiple species of predators can lower the response threshold of prey.

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