In North America, populations of lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) have evolved sympatric 'dwarf' and 'normal' ecotypes that are associated with distinct trophic niches within lakes. Trophic specialization should place diverging physiological demands on individuals, and thus, genes and phenotypes associated with energy production represent ideal candidates for studies of adaptation. Here, we test for the parallel divergence of traits involved in oxygen transport in dwarf and normal lake whitefish from Québec, Canada and Maine, USA. We observed significant differences in red blood cell morphology between the ecotypes. Specifically, dwarfs exhibited larger nuclei and a higher nucleus area/total cell area than normal whitefish in all of the lakes examined. In addition, isoelectric focusing gels revealed variation in the haemoglobin protein components found in whitefish. Dwarf and normal whitefish exhibited a similar number of protein components, but the composition of these components differed, with dwarf whitefish bearing a greater proportion of cathodic components compared to the normals. Furthermore, dwarf whitefish showed significant haemoglobin gene upregulation in the brain compared with the levels shown in normals. Together, our results indicate that metabolic traits involved in oxygen transport differ between the whitefish ecotypes and the strong parallel patterns of divergence observed across lakes implicates ecologically driven selection pressures. We discuss the function of these traits in relation to the differing trophic niches occupied by the whitefish and the potential contributions of trait plasticity and genetic divergence to energetic adaptation.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.