Altitudinal Variation in the Life History of Anurans in Southeast Queensland
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Global declines and disappearances of amphibians from high altitude, pristine habitats have been reported in recent years. To date the cause of many of these declines and/or disappearances has not been identified. Although it is well documented that life history characteristics of temperate amphibians are influenced by altitude (due to systematic variation of temperature with altitude), little work has been carried out on the effects of altitude on Australian anurans. This lack of ecological data is a major impediment to identifying the causal factors responsible for amphibian declines. Due to differences in life history characteristics, high altitude populations may be less resilient than their lowland counterparts and subsequently may be more vulnerable to extinction. Consequently, the main aim of this study was to determine whether altitude influenced life history characteristics and ultimately population resilience of anurans in the southeast Queensland region. Six anuran species; Litoria chloris, L. lesueuri, L. pearsoniana (Anura: Hylidae), Mixophyes fasciolatus, M. fleayi and M. iteratus (Anura: Myobatrachidae) were studied over three field seasons (1997-1999) in 18 sites of varying altitude (100-950m) in the southeast Queensland region. The life history characteristics examined were: activity and breeding season length, fecundity and egg size, number of clutches produced per season, tadpole growth and development rates, longevity, age at maturity, reproductive life span, average lifetime fecundity, survival and recapture rates. The data were collected using a combination of field-based surveys (body sizes, clutch sizes, and survival and recapture rates), museum specimen dissections (clutch and egg sizes), reciprocal transplant field experiments (tadpole growth and development rates) and skeletochronology (longevity, age at maturity, reproductive lifespan and average lifetime fecundity). On average, high altitude populations of all species had shorter breeding and activity seasons than low altitude populations (up to 10 weeks less in some cases). The magnitude of the difference in breeding season length varied among years depending on the average temperature and rainfall for the year; i.e. differences appeared greater in warmer and wetter years. Within a population males had longer breeding and activity seasons than females. Although breeding season length varied with altitude, the number of nights that individuals were active within the breeding season did not vary; i.e. low altitude populations were not active for more nights despite having a longer breeding season. This result was attributed to the absence of a relationship between individual activity and environmental variables (air temperature, rainfall, etc.) in many of the populations. Generally, intraspecific clutch size did not vary significantly with altitude. This result was due to the absence of a significant relationship between female body size and altitude (as clutch size is proportional to female body size). Egg size also did not vary with altitude however, suggesting egg size may be canalized (i.e. fixed) in these species. Results also suggest that females of these species only produce one clutch of eggs per season. Interspecific differences in reproductive characteristics largely reflected differences in reproductive mode, larval habitat and female body size. Altitude negatively influenced growth and development rates in L. chloris and development rates in L. pearsoniana. Tadpoles raised at high altitudes were also generally larger at each Gosner Development Stage in both species. The results of the reciprocal transplant experiments suggested that most of the variation in growth and development rates was due to environmental factors (water temperature) rather than genetic or maternal factors. Altitude or genetic factors did not significantly affect tadpole survival in either species. The results suggest that tadpoles occurring at high altitudes take longer to reach metamorphosis and do so at a larger size than their lowland counterparts. With the exception of L. lesueuri, skeletochronology was suitable for age estimation in the study species. Altitude had a significant effect on the age at maturity or longevity in some of the species, however there were trends toward older individuals and older ages at maturity in high altitude populations for the remaining species. Females were generally older than males for all species and in the case of longer-lived species (i.e. Mixophyes spp.) also tended to be older when breeding for the first time. The large overlap of body sizes of individuals of different ages demonstrates that body size is a poor indicator of age in these species. This is the first study to estimate average lifetime fecundity for more than one amphibian species and/or population. The results suggest that the absence of significant altitudinal variation in the average lifetime fecundity of different populations is due to tradeoffs made by females (current reproduction vs. survival). There was no significant altitudinal variation in annual survival and recapture rates in any of the species, and generally there was no difference in the survival and recapture rates of males and females in each population. Within a year, monthly survival and recapture rates were more variable at low than high altitudes and this was attributed to the longer breeding season of low altitude populations. The results did not support previous studies that suggested there was a size bias in survival and recapture rates. The shorter breeding seasons, slower growth and development rates, older age at maturity and greater longevity found in the high altitude study populations will result in increased generation time in those populations. In turn, increased generation time can cause high altitude populations to be less resilient (i.e. population takes longer to return to equilibrium after a disturbance away from equilibrium) (Pimm et al. 1988, Pimm 1991) and ultimately more vulnerable or prone to extinction or decline. The majority of unexplained global amphibian declines have occurred at high altitudes in tropical and subtropical areas. These latitudinal patterns may be explained by the narrow range of environmental tolerances exhibited by tropical organisms resulting in mountains being effectively “higher” in the tropics. Consequently, high altitude tropical species are likely to be even more vulnerable than temperate species occurring at similar altitudes. Further work on the effects of geographic variation, especially interactions between altitude and latitude are needed to evaluate the hypotheses for the causes of these declines and disappearances.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Environmental and Applied Science
Item Access Status
high altitude ecology