Microhabitat contributes to microgeographic divergence in threespine stickleback


Since the New Synthesis, most migration‐selection balance theory has predicted that there should be negligible differentiation over small spatial scales (relative to dispersal), because gene flow should erode any effect of divergent selection. Nevertheless, there are classic examples of microgeographic divergence, which theory suggests can arise under specific conditions: exceptionally strong selection, phenotypic plasticity in philopatric individuals, or nonrandom dispersal. Here, we present evidence of microgeographic morphological variation within lake and stream populations of threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). It seems reasonable to assume that a given lake or stream population of fish is well‐mixed. However, we found this assumption to be untenable. We examined trap‐to‐trap variation in 34 morphological traits measured on stickleback from 16 lakes and 16 streams. Most traits varied appreciably among traps within populations. Both between‐trap distance and microhabitat characteristics such as depth and substrate explained some of the within‐population morphological variance. Microhabitat was also associated with genotype at particular loci but there was no genetic isolation by distance, implying that heritable habitat preferences may contribute to microgeographic variation. Our study adds to growing evidence that microgeographic divergence can occur across small spatial scales within individuals’ daily dispersal neighborhood where gene flow is expected to be strong.

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