Interactions between freshwater snails and tadpoles: competition and facilitation

Oecologia. 1991 Jun;87(1):8-18. doi: 10.1007/BF00323774.


Freshwater snails and anuran tadpoles have been suggested to have their highest population densities in ponds of intermediate size where abiotic disturbance (e.g. desiccation) is low and large predators absent. Both snails and tadpoles feed on periphytic algae and, thus, there should be a large potential for competitive interactions to occur between these two distantly related taxa. In a field experiment we examined the relative strength of competition between two closely related snail species, Lymnaea stagnalis and L. peregra, and between L. stagnalis and tadpoles of the common frog, Rana temporaria. Snail growth and egg production and tadpole size at and time to metamorphosis were determined. Effects on the common food source, periphyton, were monitored with the aid of artificial substrates. Periphyton dry weight was dramatically reduced in the presence of snails and/or tadpoles. There were no competitive effects on growth or egg production of the two snail species when they were coexisting. Mortality of L. peregra was high (95%) after reproduction, but independent of treatment. Growth of L. stagnalis was reduced only at the highest tadpole densities, whereas egg production was reduced both by intraspecific competition and by competition with tadpoles. Differences in egg production were retained after tadpole metamorphosis. Tadpole larval period increased, weight of metamorphosing frogs decreased and growth rate was reduced as a function of increasing tadpole density. However, contrary to expectation, snails had a positive effect on tadpole larval period, weight and growth rate. Further, in experimental containers without snails there was a dense growth of the filamentous green alga Cladophora sp. We suggest that the facilitative effects of snails on tadpoles are due to an "indirect mutualistic" mechanism, involving competition between food sources of different quality (microalgae and Cladophora sp.) and tadpoles being competitively dominant over snails for the preferred food source (microalgae). In the presence of tadpoles snails will be forced to feed on low-quality Cladophora, increasing nutrient turnover rates, which results in enhanced productivity of microalgae, increasing tadpole food resources. Thus, tadpoles have a negative effect on snails through resource depression, while snails facilitate tadpole growth through an indirect enhancement of food availability.

Keywords: Competition; Facilitation; Freshwater snails; Ponds; Tadpoles.