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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Rapid sympatric ecological differentiation of crater lake cichlid fishes within historic times

Kathryn R Elmer1, Topi K Lehtonen12, Andreas F Kautt1, Chris Harrod34 and Axel Meyer1*

Author affiliations

1 Lehrstuhl für Zoologie und Evolutionsbiologie, Department of Biology, University of Konstanz, Universitätstrasse 10, 78457 Konstanz, Germany

2 School of Biological Sciences, Monash University, Victoria 3800, Australia

3 Department of Evolutionary Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Limnology, Postfach 165, 24302 Plön, Germany

4 Current Address: School of Biological Sciences, Queen's University Belfast, Medical Biology Centre, 97 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 7BL, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Biology 2010, 8:60  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-60

Published: 12 May 2010

Abstract

Background

After a volcano erupts, a lake may form in the cooled crater and become an isolated aquatic ecosystem. This makes fishes in crater lakes informative for understanding sympatric evolution and ecological diversification in barren environments. From a geological and limnological perspective, such research offers insight about the process of crater lake ecosystem establishment and speciation. In the present study we use genetic and coalescence approaches to infer the colonization history of Midas cichlid fishes (Amphilophus cf. citrinellus) that inhabit a very young crater lake in Nicaragua-the ca. 1800 year-old Lake Apoyeque. This lake holds two sympatric, endemic morphs of Midas cichlid: one with large, hypertrophied lips (~20% of the total population) and another with thin lips. Here we test the associated ecological, morphological and genetic diversification of these two morphs and their potential to represent incipient speciation.

Results

Gene coalescence analyses [11 microsatellite loci and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences] suggest that crater lake Apoyeque was colonized in a single event from the large neighbouring great lake Managua only about 100 years ago. This founding in historic times is also reflected in the extremely low nuclear and mitochondrial genetic diversity in Apoyeque. We found that sympatric adult thin- and thick-lipped fishes occupy distinct ecological trophic niches. Diet, body shape, head width, pharyngeal jaw size and shape and stable isotope values all differ significantly between the two lip-morphs. The eco-morphological features pharyngeal jaw shape, body shape, stomach contents and stable isotopes (δ15N) all show a bimodal distribution of traits, which is compatible with the expectations of an initial stage of ecological speciation under disruptive selection. Genetic differentiation between the thin- and thick-lipped population is weak at mtDNA sequence (FST = 0.018) and absent at nuclear microsatellite loci (FST < 0.001).

Conclusions

This study provides empirical evidence of eco-morphological differentiation occurring very quickly after the colonization of a new and vacant habitat. Exceptionally low levels of neutral genetic diversity and inference from coalescence indicates that the Midas cichlid population in Apoyeque is much younger (ca. 100 years or generations old) than the crater itself (ca. 1 800 years old). This suggests either that the crater remained empty for many hundreds of years after its formation or that remnant volcanic activity prevented the establishment of a stable fish population during the early life of the crater lake. Based on our findings of eco-morphological variation in the Apoyeque Midas cichlids, and known patterns of adaptation in Midas cichlids in general, we suggest that this population may be in a very early stage of speciation (incipient species), promoted by disruptive selection and ecological diversification.