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Mol Ecol. 2016 Aug;25(15):3645-61. doi: 10.1111/mec.13712. Epub 2016 Jul 2.

Depth-dependent plasticity in opsin gene expression varies between damselfish (Pomacentridae) species.

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Zoological Institute, University of Basel, Basel, 4051, Switzerland.
Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, 4072, Australia.
Department of Biology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, 20742, USA.


Phenotypic plasticity plays an important role in adapting the visual capability of many animal species to changing sensory requirements. Such variability may be driven by developmental change or may result from environmental changes in light habitat, thereby improving performance in different photic environments. In this study, we examined inter- and intraspecific plasticity of visual sensitivities in seven damselfish species, part of the species-rich and colourful fish fauna of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Our goal was to test whether the visual systems of damselfish were tuned to the prevailing light environment in different habitats and/or other aspects of their lifestyle. More specifically, we compared the opsin gene expression levels from individuals living in different photic habitats. We found that all species expressed rod opsin (RH1) used for dim-light vision, and primarily three cone opsins (SWS1, RH2B and RH2A) used for colour vision. While RH1 levels changed exclusively following a diurnal cycle, cone opsin expression varied with depth in four of the seven species. Estimates of visual pigment performance imply that changes in opsin expression adjust visual sensitivities to the dominant photic regime. However, we also discovered that some species show a more stable opsin expression profile. Further, we found indication that seasonal changes, possibly linked to changes in the photic environment, might also trigger opsin expression. These findings suggest that plasticity in opsin gene expression of damselfish is highly species-specific, possibly due to ecological differences in visual tasks or, alternatively, under phylogenetic constraints.


gene expression; opsin; phenotypic plasticity; reef fish; vision

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