Adaptation to novel environments can be based either on standing genetic variation or variation attributable to new mutations. When standing genetic variation for a functional adaptation is lacking, and variation due to new mutations is not yet available, adaptation is possible only through alternative functional solutions. Reduction in the number of bony lateral plates as an adaptation to freshwater colonization by marine threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) has occurred in numerous independent cases through allelic substitution in the ectodysplasin-a (Eda) gene. Studying the phenotypic and genetic variation in plate number and size in five marine and six freshwater threespine stickleback populations, we found that when variation in Eda was limiting (i.e., alleles associated with the low-plate morph were missing or in extremely low frequency), plate number reduction did not take place in freshwater populations, but reduced lateral plate coverage was achieved by a reduction in the size of lateral plates. Our results suggest that this phenotypically and genetically discrete "small-plated" threespine stickleback-which is the dominant form in three northern European freshwater populations-may be functionally equivalent to the low-plated morph and hence, serve as an example of convergent evolution toward functional similarity in the face of genetic constraints.
© 2012 The Author(s). Evolution© 2012 The Society for the Study of Evolution.