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Epigenetic regulation of trophic morphology through feeding behaviour in Arctic charr, Salvelinus alpinus

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Several models of speciation suggest that in species that are phenotypically plastic, selection can act on phenotypic variation that is environmentally induced in the earliest stages of divergence. One trait that could be subject to this process is foraging behaviour, where discrete foraging strategies are common. One species which is highly plastic in the expression of phenotype, the Arctic charr, Salvelinus alpinus (L.), is characterized by discrete variation in the anatomy of the head and mouthparts. These traits have been shown to have a functional significance, but the expression of which is thought to be at least partly phenotypically plastic. Here we test the hypothesis that foraging behaviour may regulate the anatomy of the head and mouthparts in Arctic charr. In a dyad experiment, size-matched pairs of fish from a mixed family group were fed a diet of either Mysis (a hard-bodied shrimp) or Chironomid larvae. Nine morphometric measures of head dimensions that describe wild trophic morphs were measured at the start of the experiment and 24 weeks later. Principal component scores of size-corrected morphometric measures showed highly significant differences between fish exposed to the two diets. UnivariateANOVAanalysis of the head morphometric variables showed that fish fed on Chironomids developed longer, wider jaws, longer heads and a larger eye for a given body length than did those fish fed upon Mysis. We conclude that foraging anatomy in Arctic charr is phenotypically plastic and that variation in foraging behaviour that results in feeding specialization in the wild could induce variation in head anatomy. This in turn could reinforce foraging specialization. Very rapid epigenetic divergence into distinct feeding morphs (as demonstrated here) would allow selection to act at more than one mode and thus could promote rapid evolutionary divergence, initially prior to genetic segregation, in species which are highly plastic. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society , 2003, 78, 43–49.

Keywords: environmental regulation; evolution; phenotypic plasticity; speciation

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Fish Biology Group, University Field Station, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Rowardennan, Loch Lomond, Glasgow G63 0AW, Scotland, UK

Publication date: January 1, 2003


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