Strong and parallel salinity‐induced phenotypic plasticity in one generation of threespine stickleback


Phenotypic plasticity is a major factor contributing to variation of organisms in nature, yet its evolutionary significance is insufficiently understood. One example system where plasticity might have played an important role in an adaptive radiation is the threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), a fish that has diversified after invading freshwater lakes repeatedly from the marine habitat. The parallel phenotypic changes that occurred in this radiation were extremely rapid. This study evaluates phenotypic plasticity in stickleback body shape in response to salinity in fish stemming from a wild freshwater population. Using a split‐clutch design, we detected surprisingly large phenotypically plastic changes in body shape after one generation. Fish raised in salt water developed shallower bodies and longer jaws, and these changes were consistent and parallel across families. Although this work highlights the effect of phenotypic plasticity, we also find indications that constraints may play a role in biasing the direction of possible phenotypic change. The slopes of the allometric relationship of individual linear traits did not change across treatments, indicating that plastic change does not affect the covariation of traits with overall size. We conclude that stickleback have a large capacity for plastic phenotypic change in response to salinity and that plasticity and evolutionary constraints have likely contributed to the phenotypic diversification of these fish.

Journal of Evolutionary Biology 28: 667-677