Countergradient variation and secondary sexual color: phenotypic convergence promotes genetic divergence in carotenoid use between sympatric anadromous and nonanadromous morphs of sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)

Evolution. 2001 Feb;55(2):380-91. doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2001.tb01301.x.


Genetically distinct anadromous (sockeye) and nonanadromous (kokanee) morphs of the Pacific salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka, develop identical, brilliant red color at maturity during sympatric breeding in freshwater streams. The marine and lacustrine environments they occupy prior to maturity, however, appear to differ in the availability of dietary carotenoid pigments necessary to produce red coloration. We tested the hypothesis that kokanee, which occupy carotenoid-poor lakes, are more efficient at using the dietary pigments than are sockeye, which occupy the more productive North Pacific Ocean. In a 2-year controlled breeding study, flesh and skin color of mature and immature crosses fed a low-carotenoid diet were quantified with both a chromameter and by chemical extraction of carotenoid pigments. Results revealed striking countergradient variation in carotenoid use, with kokanee approximately three times more efficient at sequestering the pigments to the flesh musculature than similar age sockeye. This difference translated into virtually nonoverlapping differences between pure crosses in secondary sexual color at maturity, when the pigments are mobilized and transported to the skin. Kokanee crosses turned pinkish red over most of their body, whereas sockeye turned olive green. The olive green was similar to the breeding color of residuals in the wild, the progeny of anadromous sockeye that remain in fresh water and are believed to have given rise to kokanee on numerous independent occasions. Reciprocal hybrids were similar to each other and intermediate to the pure crosses, indicating additive genetic inheritance. Mate choice trials with sockeye males in the wild showed the ancestral morph strongly preferred red over green models. These results suggest a preference for red mates maintained in nonanadromous breeding populations drove the reevolution of the red phenotype in kokanee via more efficient use of dietary carotenoid pigments. This is a novel, yet hidden, mechanism by which sexual selection promotes the genetic differentiation of these sympatric populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carotenoids*
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Male
  • Phenotype
  • Salmon / genetics*
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal
  • Skin Pigmentation / genetics*


  • Carotenoids