The genetics of dietary experience in a restricted natural population

The sources of individual differences in human and non-human animals remain controversial. We demonstrate that diet and genetics interact in determining the ontogenetic trajectory of chemosensory and prey preferences in the common garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, a dietary generalist. In litters of neonate snakes from a single small field in an earthworm-ingesting population, initial responses to chemical cues from fish and worm were similar, with zero heritabilities. After 12 meals on fish, however, the heritability of both fish and worm chemosensory responses increased markedly, the change in response to fish but not worm chemicals was heritable, the relative preference for fish versus worm was heritable, and the change in relative preference was heritable. In addition, growth rates on each diet were related to changes in chemoreceptive responses. Such genetic-environment variation that emerges only after equivalent ontogenetic experience may be a factor in responses to environmental change in many species.

The sources of individual differences in human and non-human animals remain controversial. We demonstrate that diet and genetics interact in determining the ontogenetic trajectory of chemosensory and prey preferences in the common garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, a dietary generalist. In litters of neonate snakes from a single small field in an earthworm-ingesting population, initial responses to chemical cues from fish and worm were similar, with zero heritabilities. After 12 meals on fish, however, the heritability of both fish and worm chemosensory responses increased markedly, the change in response to fish but not worm chemicals was heritable, the relative preference for fish versus worm was heritable, and the change in relative preference was heritable. In addition, growth rates on each diet were related to changes in chemoreceptive responses. Such genetic-environment variation that emerges only after equivalent ontogenetic experience may be a factor in responses to environmental change in many species.

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