Open Access Open Badges Research article

Locally adapted fish populations maintain small-scale genetic differentiation despite perturbation by a catastrophic flood event

Martin Plath1, Bernd Hermann2, Christiane Schröder2, Rüdiger Riesch3, Michael Tobler4, Francisco J García de León5, Ingo Schlupp3 and Ralph Tiedemann2*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Ecology & Evolution, J.W. Goethe University Frankfurt, Siesmayerstrasse 70-72, D-60054 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

2 Institute of Biochemistry & Biology, Unit of Evolutionary Biology/Systematic Zoology, University of Potsdam, Karl-Liebknecht Str. 24-25, D-14476 Potsdam, Germany

3 Department of Zoology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019, USA

4 Department of Biology and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Texas A&M University, 2258 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843, USA

5 Laboratorio Genética para la Conservación, Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste, S. C., Mar Bermejo No. 195, Col. Playa Palo de Santa Rita, A. P. 128, La Paz, Baja California Sur 23090, Mexico

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:256  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-256

Published: 23 August 2010



Local adaptation to divergent environmental conditions can promote population genetic differentiation even in the absence of geographic barriers and hence, lead to speciation. Perturbations by catastrophic events, however, can distort such parapatric ecological speciation processes. Here, we asked whether an exceptionally strong flood led to homogenization of gene pools among locally adapted populations of the Atlantic molly (Poecilia mexicana, Poeciliidae) in the Cueva del Azufre system in southern Mexico, where two strong environmental selection factors (darkness within caves and/or presence of toxic H2S in sulfidic springs) drive the diversification of P. mexicana. Nine nuclear microsatellites as well as heritable female life history traits (both as a proxy for quantitative genetics and for trait divergence) were used as markers to compare genetic differentiation, genetic diversity, and especially population mixing (immigration and emigration) before and after the flood.


Habitat type (i.e., non-sulfidic surface, sulfidic surface, or sulfidic cave), but not geographic distance was the major predictor of genetic differentiation. Before and after the flood, each habitat type harbored a genetically distinct population. Only a weak signal of individual dislocation among ecologically divergent habitat types was uncovered (with the exception of slightly increased dislocation from the Cueva del Azufre into the sulfidic creek, El Azufre). By contrast, several lines of evidence are indicative of increased flood-induced dislocation within the same habitat type, e.g., between different cave chambers of the Cueva del Azufre.


The virtual absence of individual dislocation among ecologically different habitat types indicates strong natural selection against migrants. Thus, our current study exemplifies that ecological speciation in this and other systems, in which extreme environmental factors drive speciation, may be little affected by temporary perturbations, as adaptations to physico-chemical stressors may directly affect the survival probability in divergent habitat types.