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Functional basis of ecological divergence in sympatric stickleback

Matthew D McGee1*, Dolph Schluter2 and Peter C Wainwright1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Evolution and Ecology, University of California Davis, 1 Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA

2 Biodiversity Research Centre and Zoology Department, University of British Columbia, 2329 W MallVancouver BC V6T 1Z4, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:277  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-277

Published: 31 December 2013



The evolution of ecological divergence in closely related species is a key component of adaptive radiation. However, in most examples of adaptive radiation the mechanistic basis of ecological divergence remains unclear. A classic example is seen in the young benthic and limnetic stickleback species pairs of British Columbia. In each pair the benthic species feeds on littoral macroinvertebrates whereas the limnetic feeds on pelagic zooplankton. Previous studies indicate that in both short-term feeding trials and long-term enclosure studies, benthics and limnetics exhibit enhanced performance on their own resource but fare more poorly on the other species’ resource. We examined the functional basis of ecological divergence in the stickleback species pair from Paxton Lake, BC, using biomechanical models of fish feeding applied to morphological traits. We examined the consequences of morphological differences using high speed video of feeding fish.


Benthic stickleback possess morphological traits that predict high suction generation capacity, including greatly hypertrophied epaxial musculature. In contrast, limnetic stickleback possess traits thought to enhance capture of evasive planktonic prey, including greater jaw protrusion than benthics and greater displacement advantage in both the lower jaw-opening lever system and the opercular four-bar linkage. Kinematic data support the expectations from the morphological analysis that limnetic stickleback exhibit faster strikes and greater jaw protrusion than benthic fish, whereas benthics exert greater suction force on attached prey.


We reveal a previously unknown suite of complex morphological traits that affect rapid ecological divergence in sympatric stickleback. These results indicate that postglacial divergence in stickleback involves many functional systems and shows the value of investigating the functional consequences of phenotypic divergence in adaptive radiation.

Gasterosteus aculeatus; Functional morphology; Suction feeding; Postglacial fishes; Ecological speciation