Characterizing phenotypic diversity in marine populations of threespine sticklebacks




Fraser, Ainsley

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The threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) is an important model for studying evolution. Sticklebacks are widely distributed in the northern hemisphere and inhabit freshwater, brackish, and marine waters. Anadromous and marine populations (hereafter marine) are assumed to be homogenous in space and invariant in time in their phenotypic characteristics, despite marine environments varying on regional and local scales. Recent studies suggest there is in fact genetic and phenotypic structure in marine sticklebacks, yet the ecological causes remain unclear. My goal was to assess trait variation in marine stickleback populations around Southern coastal British Columbia (BC), and to determine whether or not oceanographic and habitat characteristics explained this variation. The area around Vancouver Island was ideal because four distinct oceanographic regions surround the island with varying coastal habitat types. Between May-July 2019, I sampled ~600 sticklebacks from 15 sites. I then characterized trait variation using two-dimensional (2D) geometric morphometric analysis to compare individuals between oceanographic regions and coastal habitats. I focused on five traits: armour phenotype, head size, body size, head shape, and body shape. I chose these traits because they are ecologically important and well-studied in freshwater populations, where their ecological drivers are known. I found that marine sticklebacks did vary morphologically among and between regions and habitats, but the variation was not immediately related to environmental variation, nor obviously comparable to variation in freshwater populations. Sexual dimorphism was the largest source of variation in the data, a well-established finding. But oceanographic and habitat variables influenced differences between males and females. I concluded that marine sticklebacks offer abundant opportunities for expanding our knowledge of drivers of morphology in nature.



Marine Threespine Stickleback, Vancouver Island, Phenotypic Variation, 2-D Geometric Morphometrics