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Population responses to anthropogenic disturbance: lessons from three-spined sticklebacks Gasterosteus aculeatus in eutrophic habitats

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Human-induced environmental changes differ from most natural changes in which they happen at a faster rate and require quicker responses from populations. The first response of populations is usually phenotypically plastic alterations of morphology, physiology and behaviour. This plasticity can be favourable and move the population closer to an adaptive peak in the altered environment and, hence, maintain a viable population, or be maladaptive and move the population further from the peak and increase the risk of extinction. The radiation of the three-spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus from the ocean to different freshwater habitats has provided much information on adaptation to new environmental conditions. Currently, human-induced eutrophication is changing the breeding areas of these fish, which creates a model system for investigation of responses to rapid environmental disturbance. Results show that a primary reaction is plastic alterations of behaviour, with some adjustments being adaptive while others are not. At the same time, the strength of sexual selection on several traits is relaxed, which could increase the relative importance of survival selection. Whether this will restore population viability depends on the amount of standing genetic variation in the right direction. Human disturbances can be dramatic and resolution of the limit of flexibility and the possibility of genetic adaptation should be important targets of future research.
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Keywords: contemporary adaptation; environmental deterioration; evolution; mate choice; natural selection; phenotypic plasticity

Document Type: Regular Paper

Publication date: 2009-11-01

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