Individual specialization and assortative mating in undifferentiated populations




Snowberg, Lisa Kathryn

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Individual specialization occurs when individuals selectively consume a subset of their population's diet. Intraspecific diet variation can stabilize population and community dynamics, promote species coexistence, and increase ecosystem productivity. Ecological variation also provides the variability necessary for natural or sexual selection to act.

Individual threespine stickleback select different prey from a shared environment, and this variation is not simply a result of sex, size, or spatial heterogeneity. I use longitudinal observation of stickleback foraging microhabitat to support more commonly used cross-sectional metrics. Among recaptured individuals there were correlations between microhabitat use and functional morphology, and microhabitat use and long term dietary differences between individuals.

I quantify individual specialization across populations using cross-sectional sampling to understand how and why ecological variation may itself be variable. All populations showed significant individual specialization. Specialization varied between populations and this variation seems to be a long-term property of populations. Overall morphological variance was positively correlated with ecological variation.

Ecological variation, like all types of heritable variation, provides raw material for evolutionary change. For example, lacustrine populations of stickleback are commonly under disruptive selection due to intraspecific competition for prey resources. Speciation with gene flow may be driven by a combination of positive assortative mating and disruptive selection, particularly if selection and assortative mating act on the same trait. We present evidence that stickleback exhibit assortative mating by diet, using the isotopes of males and eggs within their nests. In concert with disruptive selection, this assortative mating should facilitate divergence. However, the population remains phenotypically unimodal, highlighting the fact that assortative mating and disruptive selection do not guarantee evolutionary divergence and speciation.

There are several not-mutually-exclusive mechanisms by which assortative mating by diet may occur in these populations, such as shared microhabitat preference among individuals of similar diet. Stable isotopes reveal diet differences between different nesting areas and among individuals using different nest habitat within a nesting area. Spatial segregation of diet types may generate some assortative mating, but is insufficient to explain the observed assortment strength. We therefore conclude that sticklebacks' diet-assortative mating arises primarily from behavioral preference rather than from spatial isolation.



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