Classification of threespine stickleback along the benthic-limnetic axis

Biol J Linn Soc Lond. 2010 Nov 1;101(3):595-608. doi: 10.1111/j.1095-8312.2010.01531.x.


Many species of fish display morphological divergence between individuals feeding on macroinvertebrates associated with littoral habitats (benthic morphotypes) and individuals feeding on zooplankton in the limnetic zone (limnetic morphotypes). Threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus L.) have diverged along the benthic-limnetic axis into allopatric morphotypes in thousands of populations and into sympatric species pairs in several lakes. However, only a few well known populations have been studied because identifying additional populations as either benthic or limnetic requires detailed dietary or observational studies. Here we develop a Fisher's linear discriminant function based on the skull morphology of known benthic and limnetic stickleback populations from the Cook Inlet Basin of Alaska and test the feasibility of using this function to identify other morphologically divergent populations. Benthic and limnetic morphotypes were separable using this technique and of 45 populations classified, three were identified as morphologically extreme (two benthic and one limnetic), nine as moderately divergent (three benthic and six limnetic) and the remaining 33 populations as morphologically intermediate. Classification scores were found to correlate with eye size, the depth profile of lakes, and the presence of invasive northern pike (Esox lucius). This type of classification function provides a means of integrating the complex morphological differences between morphotypes into a single score that reflects the position of a population along the benthic-limnetic axis and can be used to relate that position to other aspects of stickleback biology.