Plasticity in pigmentation induced by conflicting threats from predation and UV radiation

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In a variable and unpredictable environment, phenotypic plasticity in morphology or behavior may considerably improve an organism's protection against environmental threats and thereby its fitness. Here I demonstrate that common freshwater organisms, copepods (Crustacea), show a plastic response by adjusting pigmentation level in relation to two environmental threats: ultraviolet radiation (UV) and predation. The red pigment in copepods, astaxanthin, reduces damage caused by UV radiation, but makes the organism more conspicuous, thereby exposing it to higher predation pressure. In a field survey of six lakes sampled monthly for 16 mo, I quantified UV and predation threat, as well as copepod pigmentation level. The relative threat ratio (UV/predation) was generally lowest during summer and highest during spring; this pattern was paralleled by pigmentation level among copepods. Moreover, the level of pigmentation among copepods in lakes with high predation pressure was lower than among those copepods in lakes with lower risk of predation. In a complementary experimental study performed under constant UV threat, calanoid copepods in the absence of predation threat responded with almost three times higher pigment levels, compared to those with fish present (caged). Hence, the correlative field survey and the mechanistic experiment together suggest that the level of pigmentation in copepods is an inducible and adjustable defense, governed by the aim to improve individual protection against prevailing threats from both predation and UV radiation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1005-1016
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2004

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Ecology


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