Kin recognition and MHC discrimination in African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) tadpoles.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Kin-recognition abilities, first demonstrated 25 years ago in toad tadpoles, now appear to be widespread among amphibians. In some vertebrates kin recognition is based, at least in part, on highly polymorphic major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes. Besides protecting animals from disease resistance, MHC genes regulate social behaviour. They allow relatives to recognise one another so that they can cooperate for mutual benefit. These two seemingly distinct functions of MHC genes may be integrally related, because animals need to outbreed to optimise the immune systems of their offspring. The ability to discriminate MHC-type is therefore likely to facilitate kin discrimination in tadpoles. I tested association preferences of African clawed-frog (Xenopus laevis) tadpoles in a laboratory choice apparatus. As in other anuran species, I found that tadpoles at earlier developmental stages preferentially associate with unfamiliar siblings over unfamiliar non-siblings but that this preference reverses during development. Tadpoles approaching metamorphosis demonstrated a reversal in their preference; they preferentially school with non-kin rather than kin. The ontogenetic switch in larval schooling preferences coincides with the onset of thyroid hormone (TH) controlled development and may be indicative of decreased fitness benefits associated with schooling with kin at later developmental stages. These may result from an increase in intraspecific competition, predation, or disease susceptibilities of prometamorphic individuals. Alternatively, the kin avoidance behaviours observed at later larval stages might reflect disassociative behaviour that facilitates inbreeding avoidance at reproductive maturity. This is the first study to find a shift from an association preference for kin to non-kin during amphibian larval development. Using allele-specific PCR techniques to MHC-type tadpoles, I tested association preferences among siblings based on shared MHC haplotypes. By using only full siblings in experimental tests, I controlled for genetic variation elsewhere in the genome that might influence schooling preferences. I found that X. laevis tadpoles discriminate among familiar full siblings based on differences at MHC genes. Subjects from four families preferentially schooled with MHC-identical siblings over those with which they shared no or one haplotype. Furthermore, the strength of tadpoles’ MHC-assortative schooling preferences significantly correlated with amino acid differences in the peptide-binding region (PBR) of both the MHC class I and II loci. Since MHC-PBR polymorphisms determine the pool of peptides that can serve as ligands for MHC molecules, these findings support the hypothesis that MHC peptide ligands mediate MHC type discrimination. As test subjects were equally familiar with all stimulus groups, tadpole discrimination appears to involve a self-referent genetic recognition mechanism whereby individuals compare their own MHC type with those of conspecifics. I also found that non-MHC-linked genetic differences contribute to tadpole association preferences in tests that contrast MHC and kinship. Tadpoles did not discriminate between MHC-similar non-siblings and MHC-dissimilar siblings and preferentially associated with MHC-dissimilar non-siblings rather than MHC-similar non-siblings. Although the MHC may be not solely responsible for the genetically determined cues that direct tadpole association preferences, it certainly is important in facilitating discrimination among conspecifics in X. laevis tadpoles. MHC-based discrimination may be retained through ontogeny and serve to maintain MHC-polymorphisms by facilitating disassortative mating.