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Biol Lett. 2008 Aug 23;4(4):385-7. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0204.

Experimental evidence for latent developmental plasticity: intertidal whelks respond to a native but not an introduced predator.

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  • 1Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, Bamfield, BC, Canada.


Animals with highly inducible traits may show no inducible response when exposed to a related but wholly novel cue. This appears to be true for the intertidal whelk Nucella lamellosa faced with a voracious introduced predator. In the laboratory, we exposed whelks to effluent from two species of predatory crab, the native red rock crab Cancer productus and the invasive European green crab Carcinus maenas. Nucella and Cancer have a long shared history in the northeast Pacific, whereas potential interaction with Carcinus began here less than 10 years ago. Although Nucella responded adaptively to Cancer effluent by increasing shell thickness and decreasing somatic growth, there was no such response to Carcinus. Furthermore, thicker shelled Nucella were less likely to be eaten by Carcinus. Because Nucella produces thicker shells when exposed to Cancer cues, its ability to respond similarly to Carcinus depends only on the coupling of the Carcinus cue to the existing developmental pathways for adaptive changes in shell form. Such coupling of latent plasticity to a novel cue -- via genetic changes or associative learning -- could explain many cases of rapid phenotypic change following a sudden shift in the environment.

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