Convergent changes in the trophic ecology of extremophile fish along replicated environmental gradients

Michael Tobler, Kristin Scharnweber, Ryan Greenway, Courtney N. Passow, Lenin Arias-Rodriguez, Francisco J. García-De-León

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Divergent selection along environmental gradients connecting locally restricted extreme habitats and adjacent benign habitats can shape convergent evolution of traits involved in coping with physiochemical stressors and can drive speciation. At the same time, the presence of such stressors alters aspects of the biotic environment, including resource availability and competitive regimes. However, it remains unclear whether and how the ecology of populations occurring in both extreme and benign environments varies in a predictable fashion. We investigated the trophic ecology of live-bearing fishes of the genus Poecilia that have independently colonised multiple springs containing toxic hydrogen sulphide in southern Mexico. Sulphide spring fish are adapted to the unique environmental conditions and are reproductively isolated from ancestral populations in adjacent non-sulphidic habitats. We used gut content analyses to test whether colonisation of extreme habitats was accompanied by shifts of trophic resource use and expansions of trophic niche width. Furthermore, we tested whether dietary shifts were reflected in trophic morphology by comparing intestinal tract lengths among populations using both wild-caught and common garden-raised individuals. Gut content analyses revealed that fish inhabiting toxic springs expanded their trophic niche width and changed their dietary resource use from detritus and algae to sulphide bacteria and invertebrates. This dietary shift was paralleled by changes in intestinal tract morphology, whereby sulphide spring fish had shorter intestines than fish from adjacent non-sulphidic habitats. Analysis of common garden-raised fish indicated that morphological differences between sulphidic and non-sulphidic populations are at least in part due to genetic differentiation. Both patterns of trophic resource use and differentiation in trophic morphology were consistent across replicated pairs of sulphidic and non-sulphidic populations, although the magnitude of differentiation varied among river drainages. Our results suggest that colonisation of and adaptation to sulphide springs in southern Mexico was paralleled by convergent changes in trophic ecology. This highlights the complexity of environmental gradients and the necessity of considering multiple sources of selection when studying the evolution of complex phenotypes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)768-780
Number of pages13
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • Dietary niche
  • Ecological diversification
  • Extreme environment
  • Hydrogen sulphide springs
  • Poecilia (Poeciliidae)


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