Giants, dwarfs and the environment - metamorphic trait plasticity in the common frog

PLoS One. 2014 Mar 5;9(3):e89982. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089982. eCollection 2014.


In order to understand adaptation processes and population dynamics, it is central to know how environmental parameters influence performance of organisms within populations, including their phenotypes. The impact of single or few particular parameters in concert was often assessed in laboratory and mesocosm experiments. However, under natural conditions, with many biotic and abiotic factors potentially interacting, outcomes on phenotypic changes may be different. To study the potential environmental impact on realized phenotypic plasticity within a natural population, we assessed metamorphic traits (developmental time, size and body mass) in an amphibian species, the European common frog Rana temporaria, since a) larval amphibians are known to exhibit high levels of phenotypic plasticity of these traits in response to habitat parameters and, b) the traits' features may strongly influence individuals' future performance and fitness. In 2007 we studied these metamorphic traits in 18 ponds spread over an area of 28 km2. A subset of six ponds was reinvestigated in 2009 and 2010. This study revealed locally high variances in metamorphic traits in this presumed generalist species. We detected profound differences between metamorphing froglets (up to factor ten); both between and within ponds, on a very small geographic scale. Parameters such as predation and competition as well as many other pond characteristics, generally expected to have high impact on development, could not be related to the trait differences. We observed high divergence of patterns of mass at metamorphosis between ponds, but no detectable pattern when metamorphic traits were compared between ponds and years. Our results indicate that environment alone, i.e. as experienced by tadpoles sharing the same breeding pond, can only partly explain the variability of metamorphic traits observed. This emphasizes the importance to assess variability of reaction norms on the individual level to explain within-population variability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Distribution
  • Animals
  • Body Size
  • Body Weight
  • Germany
  • Larva / anatomy & histology
  • Larva / growth & development*
  • Metamorphosis, Biological*
  • Ponds
  • Population Density
  • Predatory Behavior
  • Rana temporaria / anatomy & histology
  • Rana temporaria / growth & development*

Grant support

FG was supported by a scholarship of “Cusanuswerk Bischöfliche Studienförderung” ( The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.