Phenotypic plasticity drives a depth gradient in male conspicuousness in threespine stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus


Signal evolution is thought to depend on both a signal's detectability or conspicuousness (signal design) as well as any extractable information it may convey to a potential receiver (signal content). While theoretical and empirical work in sexual selection has largely focused on signal content, there has been a steady accrual of evidence that signal design is also important for trait evolution. Despite this, relatively little attention has been paid to spatial variation in the conspicuousness of a given signal, especially over small spatial scales (relative to an organism's dispersal distance). Here, we show that visual signals of male threespine stickleback vary in conspicuousness, depending on a male's nest depth within a given lake. Deeper nesting males were typically more chromatically conspicuous than shallow nesting males. This trend is partly because all male stickleback are more conspicuous in deep optical environments. However, deep males are even more conspicuous than environmentally driven null expectations, while shallow males tend to be disproportionally cryptic. Experimental manipulation of male nesting depth induced plastic changes in nuptial color that replicated the natural gradients in conspicuousness. We discuss a number of potential mechanisms that could produce depth gradients in conspicuousness in male stickleback, including concomitant depth gradients in diet, predation pressure, male/female density, female preference, and opportunity for sexual selection.

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