How do parents respond to changing ecological and social environments: insights from a coral reef fish with biparental care
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Phenotypic plasticity, the capacity of individuals to respond to changing environments by modifying traits, is critically important in allowing biological innovation in the face of environmental change. My dissertation used the clown anemonefish (Amphiprion percula) study system to explore plasticity in parenting strategies in response to variable ecological and social environments. In Part I, I investigated plasticity in response to ecological environment. First, I explored how resource variation influences parenting strategies. I measured parental behaviors in A. percula under two feeding regimes in the laboratory. I demonstrated that clownfish exhibit plasticity in parental care, and that there is significant among individual variation, i.e., personality, in parenting strategies. Second, I tested how plasticity affects life history strategies in the field. I measured habitat, reproductive, and parental traits in a natural population and found positive correlations between resource availability (anemone size) and body size, reproduction, and parental care. I conducted an experimental manipulation of resource availability and found that reproduction and parental care are plastic, providing a causal link between habitat quality variation and reproductive success in natural populations. In Part II, I investigated plasticity in response to social environment. In my third chapter, I explored how parents utilize social information to optimize their parental investment. I developed a game theory model that provides predictions for how power and punishment influence negotiations between parents over offspring care. The model predicts that the threat of punishment by a powerful parent will result in greater partner effort and, as a result, the offspring receive more total care when there is power and punishment in negotiations. Finally, I tested alternative models along with the model I developed, investigating how parents respond to each other to reach a negotiated settlement over offspring care. I experimentally handicapped one pair member and measured the response of the other parent. I found that anemonefish males and females do not respond directly to changes in their partner’s behavior, contrary to predictions of current negotiation models. Together, results from my dissertation extend our understanding of plasticity of parental care, providing a framework for understanding how parents will respond to changing environments.