Climate and amphibian body size: a new perspective gained from the fossil record

Published online: 
26 December 2017

Martínez-Monzón Almudena, Blain Hugues-Alexandre, Cuenca-Bescós Gloria, Rodríguez Miguel Ángel

In recent years several studies have been carried out to test the validity of Bergmann's rule for amphibians, and have generated varying results. Due to the lack of agreement on this topic, here we examine the relationship between climate and body size for one anuran species (Bufo calamita, commonly known as the natterjack toad) with a new methodological approach that uses the fossil record as the data source. We analysed bones from two archaeo-paleontological sites located close to each other in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain) that together encompass more than one million years from Early to Late Pleistocene. We used ordinary least squares (OLS) simple regression models to integrate body size and palaeoclimatic data (temperature and precipitation) and describe the relationship between the amphibian's body size and climate along the entire temporal gradient. We found the body size of B. calamita to be negatively related to the mean annual temperature and the mean temperature of the coldest month, and positively related to December-to-February precipitation. The climatic influence was stronger in females, which were smaller than males in most cases, and therefore an inverse sexual size dimorphism pattern was found. Juvenile individuals or the limited sexual size dimorphism of this species may be causes of this unusual pattern. Bufo calamita populations showed a clear Bergmann cline during the Pleistocene period, and winter stands out as the most influential season. Although this new methodology can only be used to describe patterns, we discuss several mechanisms that could explain our results. We propose that starvation resistance and delayed maturation are the main causes for this increase in size in periods with cooler winters, and a fecundity-related hypothesis to explain why climate has a greater influence on female body size.