How do red-eyed treefrog embryos sense motion in predator attacks? Assessing the role of vestibular mechanoreception [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Julie Jung, Su J. Kim, Sonia M. Perez Arias, James G. McDaniel, and Karen M. Warkentin

The widespread ability to alter timing of hatching in response to environmental cues can serve as a defense against threats to eggs. Arboreal embryos of red-eyed treefrogs, Agalychnis callidryas, can hatch up to 30% prematurely to escape predation. This escape-hatching response is cued by physical disturbance of eggs during attacks, including vibrations or motion, and thus depends critically on mechanosensory ability. Predator-induced hatching appears later in development than flooding-induced, hypoxia-cued hatching; thus, its onset is not constrained by the development of hatching ability. It may, instead, reflect the development of mechanosensor function. We hypothesize that vestibular mechanoreception mediates escape-hatching in snake attacks, and that the developmental period when hatching-competent embryos fail to flee from snakes reflects a sensory constraint. We assessed the ontogenetic congruence of escape-hatching responses and an indicator of vestibular function, the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR), in three ways. First, we measured VOR in two developmental series of embryos 3–7 days old to compare with the published ontogeny of escape success in attacks. Second, during the period of greatest variation in VOR and escape success, we compared hatching responses and VOR across sibships. Finally, in developmental series, we compared the response of individual embryos to a simulated attack cue with their VOR. The onset of VOR and hatching responses were largely concurrent at all three scales. Moreover, latency to hatch in simulated attacks decreased with increasing VOR. These results are consistent with a key role of the vestibular system in the escape-hatching response of A. callidryas embryos to attacks.

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