Contextual behavioural plasticity in Italian agile frog (Rana latastei) tadpoles exposed to native and alien predator cues.
Predation is a strong driver for the evolution of prey behaviour. To properly assess the actual risk of predation, anuran tadpoles mostly rely on water-borne chemical cues, and their ability to evaluate environmental information is even more crucial when potential predators consist of unknown alien species. Behavioural plasticity - that is, the capacity to express changes in behaviour in response to different environmental stimuli - is crucial to cope with predation risk. We explored the defensive behaviour of Italian agile frog (Rana latastei) tadpoles when exposed to the chemical cues of two predator species, one native (dragonfly larvae) and one alien (red swamp crayfish). Firstly, we observed whether a plastic life history trait (i.e. hatching time) might be affected by native predatory cues. Secondly, we recorded a suite of behavioural responses (activity level, lateralization and sinuosity) to each cue. For assessing lateralization and sinuosity, we developed a C++ code for the automatic analysis of digitally recorded tadpole tracks. Hatching time seemed not to be affected by the potential risk of predation, while both predator species and diet affected tadpoles' defensive behaviour. Tadpoles responded to a predator threat by two main defensive strategies: freezing and 'zig-zagging'. While the first behaviour had previously been reported, the analysis of individual trajectories indicated that tadpoles can also increase path complexity, probably to prevent predators from anticipating their location. We also recorded a decrease in lateralization intensity, which suggests that under predation risk, tadpoles tend to scrutinize the surrounding environment equally on both sides.