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Plasticity contributes to a fine-scale depth gradient in sticklebacks’ visual system

Abstract

The light environment influences an animal's ability to forage, evade predators, and find mates, and consequently is known to drive local adaptation of visual systems. However, the light environment may also vary over fine spatial scales at which genetic adaptation is difficult. For instance, in aquatic systems, the available wavelengths of light change over a few metres depth. Do animals plastically adjust their visual system to such small‐scale environmental light variation? Here, we show that in three‐spine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), opsin gene expression (an important determinant of colour vision) changes over a 2‐m vertical gradient in nest depth. By experimentally altering the light environment using light filters to cover enclosures in a lake, we found that opsin expression can be adjusted on a short time frame (weeks) in response to the local light environment. This is to our knowledge the smallest spatial scale on which visual adjustments through opsin expression have been recorded in a natural setting along a continuously changing light environment.

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