Incursions of marine water into South America during the Miocene prompted colonization of freshwater habitats by ancestrally marine species and present a unique opportunity to study the molecular evolution of adaptations to varying environments. Freshwater and marine environments are distinct in both spectra and average intensities of available light. Here, we investigate the molecular evolution of rhodopsin, the photosensitive pigment in the eye that activates in response to light, in a clade of South American freshwater anchovies derived from a marine ancestral lineage. Using likelihood-based comparative sequence analyses, we found evidence for positive selection in the rhodopsin of freshwater anchovy lineages at sites known to be important for aspects of rhodopsin function such as spectral tuning. No evidence was found for positive selection in marine lineages, nor in three other genes not involved in vision. Our results suggest that an increased rate of rhodopsin evolution was driven by diversification into freshwater habitats, thereby constituting a rare example of molecular evolution mirroring large-scale palaeogeographic events.
Keywords: South America; marine incursion; molecular evolution; rhodopsin; vision.
© 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.