Brain differences in ecologically differentiated sticklebacks

Jason Keagy, Victoria A. Braithwaite, Janette W. Boughman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Populations that have recently diverged offer a powerful model for studying evolution. Ecological differences are expected to generate divergent selection on multiple traits, including neurobiological ones. Animals must detect, process, and act on information from their surroundings and the form of this information can be highly dependent on the environment. We might expect different environments to generate divergent selection not only on the sensory organs, but also on the brain regions responsible for processing sensory information. Here, we test this hypothesis using recently evolved reproductively isolated species pairs of threespine stickleback fish Gasterosteus aculeatus that have well-described differences in many morphological and behavioral traits correlating with ecological differences. We use a state-of-the-art method, magnetic resonance imaging, to get accurate volumetric data for 2 sensory processing regions, the olfactory bulbs and optic tecta. We found a tight correlation between ecology and the size of these brain regions relative to total brain size in 2 lakes with intact species pairs. Limnetic fish, which rely heavily on vision, had relatively larger optic tecta and smaller olfactory bulbs compared with benthic fish, which utilize olfaction to a greater extent. Benthic fish also had larger total brain volumes relative to their body size compared with limnetic fish. These differences were erased in a collapsed species pair in Enos Lake where anthropogenic disturbance has led to intense hybridization. Together these data indicate that evolution of sensory processing regions can occur rapidly and independently.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)243-250
Number of pages8
JournalCurrent Zoology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Animal Science and Zoology


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