Naturally occurring environmental factors shape developmental trajectories to produce variable phenotypes. Such developmental phenotypic plasticity can have important effects on fitness, and has been demonstrated for numerous behavioral and morphological traits. However, surprisingly few studies have examined developmental plasticity of the nervous system in response to naturally occurring environmental variation, despite accumulating evidence for neuroplasticity in a variety of organisms. Here, we asked whether the brain is developmentally plastic by exposing larval amphibians to natural and anthropogenic factors. Leopard frog tadpoles were exposed to predator cues, reduced food availability, or sublethal concentrations of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in semi-natural enclosures. Mass, growth, survival, activity, larval period, external morphology, brain mass, and brain morphology were measured in tadpoles and after metamorphosis. Tadpoles in the experimental treatments had lower masses than controls, although developmental rates and survival were similar. Tadpoles exposed to predator cues or a high dose of chlorpyrifos had altered body shapes compared to controls. In addition, brains from tadpoles exposed to predator cues or a low dose of chlorpyrifos were narrower and shorter in several dimensions compared to control tadpoles and tadpoles with low food availability. Interestingly, the changes in brain morphology present at the tadpole stage did not persist in the metamorphs. Our results show that brain morphology is a developmentally plastic trait that is responsive to ecologically relevant natural and anthropogenic factors. Whether these effects on brain morphology are linked to performance or fitness is unknown.
S. Woodley, B. Mattes, Erika K Yates