Project Title

Does Climate Change Promote Cannibalism?

Project Abstract

Polyphenisms (environmentally-cued polymorphisms) occur when multiple discrete morphologies are produced in different individuals of the same species in varying environments. Arizona tiger salamanders (Ambystoma mavortium nebulosum) exhibit a cannibalistic polyphenism in which cannibal morphs possess vomerine teeth and larger, U-shaped heads than toothless typical morphs. Cannibalism can strongly impact tiger salamander populations and their surrounding communities due to their keystone role in subalpine freshwater ponds. Several studies have found that the cannibal morphology is positively correlated with salamander density. However, no previous studies have examined the impact of temperature on tiger salamander cannibalism. This is significant, as the Rocky Mountains where Arizona tiger salamanders live have warmed by 1°C on average, and models predict that the region could warm an average of about 1.5-3°C by 2050. In my study, I aim to determine how the proportion of cannibal morphs in natural populations has changed over time and whether increased temperatures and density levels influence the production of the cannibal morphology. I will gather data for my first objective through field sampling; I will seine ponds around the Gunnison basin in order to collect data on cannibal frequency to compare to previous studies to determine whether cannibal frequency has changed over time. To complete my second objective, I will conduct an experiment at the RMBL in which I will have two temperature treatments (ambient and 3°C warmer) and three density treatments (10 larvae in 6 L, 12 L, and 18 L of water) in order to determine whether increased temperatures and density levels directly influence the development of the cannibal morphology in tiger salamanders. Ultimately, understanding how rapidly changing climate conditions impact polyphenisms will help us mitigate the effects of climate change on several environmentally-sensitive species.



Funding Type

Research Grant

Academic College

Jesse D. Jones College of Science, Engineering and Technology


Watershed Science


Master of Science

Graduation Expected

May 2024




Howard Whiteman, PhD

Academic College

Jesse D. Jones College of Science, Engineering and Technology

Beginning date of project


End date of project


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