Cryptic genetic variation and body size evolution in threespine stickleback

Evolution. 2011 Apr;65(4):1203-11. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01195.x. Epub 2010 Dec 22.


The role of environment as a selective agent is well-established. Environment might also influence evolution by altering the expression of genetic variation associated with phenotypes under selection. Far less is known about this phenomenon, particularly its contribution to evolution in novel environments. We investigated how environment affected the evolvability of body size in the threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). Gasterosteus aculeatus is well suited to addressing this question due to the rapid evolution of smaller size in the numerous freshwater populations established following the colonization of new freshwater habitats by an oceanic ancestor. The repeated, rapid evolution of size following colonization contrasts with the general observation of low phenotypic variation in oceanic stickleback. We reared an oceanic population of stickleback under high and low salinity conditions, mimicking a key component of the ancestral environment, and freshwater colonization, respectively. There was low genetic variation for body size under high salinity, but this variance increased significantly when fish were reared under low salinity. We therefore conclude that oceanic populations harbor the standing genetic variation necessary for the evolution of body size, but that this variation only becomes available to selection upon colonization of a new habitat.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alaska
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Size*
  • Breeding / methods
  • Ecosystem*
  • Fresh Water
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Models, Statistical
  • Salinity
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Smegmamorpha / anatomy & histology*
  • Smegmamorpha / genetics*