Most ecological research has focused on determining how environmental variation shapes species' abundances and distributions. However, populations also can adapt to local habitat heterogeneity. These adaptations, in turn, can alter species interactions and consequently shape community dynamics. This proposal tests how locally adapted foraging behaviors in salamanders affect food web dynamics in temporary ponds. In southern New England, research has demonstrated that populations of the spotted salamander larvae (Ambystoma maculatum) diverge genetically in their foraging intensities and prey choice depending on the composition of local predators across distances as little as 100 m. This geographic variation in foraging intensity should not only affect A. maculatum's survival with predators but also their interactions with other species in the aquatic food web. Given this background, researchers will examine if and how locally adapted traits influence local food web ecology. Specifically, experiments will test how genetic differences in foraging behavior affect the abundance and growth of organisms in temporary pond food webs by manipulating predators and the genetic constitution of populations in field experiments. Experiments will be conducted with salamanders distributed across local (1-km) and latitudinal (240-km) gradients in predator density. Experiments performed across a latitudinal cline in predator composition will address how the potential northward expansion of predators with climate change might alter northern food webs.
The broader impacts of this work will include training for K-12 educators; involvement of minority summer assistants; training for undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral associates; and enhanced public education in ecology and evolution. A summer internship program will be developed for future K-12 teachers and to mentor summer minority students in scientific research. Three undergraduate research positions will be created and one additional graduate student will be trained. In conjunction with the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, museum exhibits and public outreach programs will be developed that translate research results into interactive learning units for the public