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Evolution. 2004 Feb;58(2):376-85.

Character shifts in the defensive armor of sympatric sticklebacks.

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Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, Canada.


Natural enemies may contribute to the morphological divergence of sympatric species, yet their role has received little attention to date. We tested for character shifts in defensive armor of sympatric threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus complex) previously shown to exhibit ecological character displacement in traits related to resource use. We scored five defensive armor traits in sympatric benthic and limnetic stickleback species from southwestern British Columbia and compared them with the same traits in nearby allopatric populations in the presence of the same predatory fish (Oncorhynchus sp.). This approach is analogous to tests of ecological character displacement that compare trophic traits of sympatric and allopatric species in the presence of the same community of resource types. Three patterns consistent with character displacement in defensive armor were found. First, limnetics in different lakes had consistently more armor than sympatric benthics. Second, the average amount of armor, averaged over both species, was reduced in sympatry compared to allopatric populations. This reduction was almost entirely the result of shifts by benthic species, whereas armor in limnetics was more similar to that in allopatric populations. Third, differences between sympatric benthics and limnetics in total armor were greater than expected from comparisons with allopatric populations. We interpret these patterns as the result of differences in habitat-specific predation regimes accompanying ecological character displacement and indirect interactions between sympatric stickleback species mediated by their top predators. These results suggest that predation may facilitate, rather than hinder, the process of divergence in sympatry.

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