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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Phenotypic novelty in experimental hybrids is predicted by the genetic distance between species of cichlid fish

Rike B Stelkens123*, Corinne Schmid12, Oliver Selz12 and Ole Seehausen12*

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Aquatic Ecology & Macroevolution, Institute of Ecology and Evolution, University of Bern, Baltzerstr. 6, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland

2 Department of Fish Ecology and Evolution, Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Biogeochemistry (CEEB), Eawag Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Seestrasse 79, CH-6047 Kastanienbaum, Switzerland

3 Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, Biophore, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:283  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-283

Published: 4 December 2009



Transgressive segregation describes the occurrence of novel phenotypes in hybrids with extreme trait values not observed in either parental species. A previously experimentally untested prediction is that the amount of transgression increases with the genetic distance between hybridizing species. This follows from QTL studies suggesting that transgression is most commonly due to complementary gene action or epistasis, which become more frequent at larger genetic distances. This is because the number of QTLs fixed for alleles with opposing signs in different species should increase with time since speciation provided that speciation is not driven by disruptive selection. We measured the amount of transgression occurring in hybrids of cichlid fish bred from species pairs with gradually increasing genetic distances and varying phenotypic similarity. Transgression in multi-trait shape phenotypes was quantified using landmark-based geometric morphometric methods.


We found that genetic distance explained 52% and 78% of the variation in transgression frequency in F1 and F2 hybrids, respectively. Confirming theoretical predictions, transgression when measured in F2 hybrids, increased linearly with genetic distance between hybridizing species. Phenotypic similarity of species on the other hand was not related to the amount of transgression.


The commonness and ease with which novel phenotypes are produced in cichlid hybrids between unrelated species has important implications for the interaction of hybridization with adaptation and speciation. Hybridization may generate new genotypes with adaptive potential that did not reside as standing genetic variation in either parental population, potentially enhancing a population's responsiveness to selection. Our results make it conceivable that hybridization contributed to the rapid rates of phenotypic evolution in the large and rapid adaptive radiations of haplochromine cichlids.