The genetic basis of divergent pigment patterns in juvenile threespine sticklebacks

Heredity (Edinb). 2011 Aug;107(2):155-66. doi: 10.1038/hdy.2011.1. Epub 2011 Feb 9.


Animal pigment patterns are important for a range of functions, including camouflage and communication. Repeating pigment patterns, such as stripes, bars and spots have been of particular interest to developmental and theoretical biologists, but the genetic basis of natural variation in such patterns is largely unexplored. In this study, we identify a difference in a periodic pigment pattern among juvenile threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) from different environments. Freshwater sticklebacks exhibit prominent vertical bars that visually break up the body shape, but sticklebacks from marine populations do not. We hypothesize that these distinct pigment patterns are tuned to provide crypsis in different habitats. This phenotypic difference is widespread and appears in most of the freshwater populations that we sampled. We used quantitative trait locus (QTL) mapping in freshwater-marine F2 hybrids to elucidate the genetic architecture underlying divergence in this pigmentation pattern. We identified two QTL that were significantly associated with variation in barring. Interestingly, these QTL were associated with two distinct aspects of the pigment pattern: melanophore number and overall pigment level. We compared the QTL locations with positions of known pigment candidate genes in the stickleback genome. We also identified two major QTL for juvenile body size, providing new insights into the genetic basis of juvenile growth rates in natural populations. In summary, although there is a growing literature describing simple genetic bases for adaptive coloration differences, this study emphasizes that pigment patterns can also possess a more complex genetic architecture.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Animals
  • Body Size / genetics
  • Chromosome Mapping
  • Female
  • Male
  • Phenotype*
  • Pigmentation / genetics*
  • Pigments, Biological / genetics
  • Quantitative Trait Loci / genetics
  • Smegmamorpha / genetics*


  • Pigments, Biological