This week, the Wainwright blog returns to a topic of perennial interest, the threespine stickleback. I will discuss a recent paper from the Schluter lab at UBC on color plasticity and background matching in stickleback.

To set the stage, it’s important to realize that from a stickleback’s perspective, “bird” is a four-letter word. Predation by diving birds like grebes and coots is commonplace in many freshwater stickleback populations. Unlike predatory dragonfly larva, which detect prey by vision and by water movement, diving birds generally detect their prey by sight alone. In other words, if you’re a freshwater stickleback, it’s very important that the top of your body blends in with your surroundings.

This stickleback didn't get the memo. ( )

In this paper, Jason Clarke and Dolph Schluter tried to assay background matching capability between limnetic and benthic sticklebacks in Paxton Lake, British Columbia. First, they used a spectrometer to record the background color in the limnetic and benthic habitats. The open-water limnetic habitat was a bluish color, but the benthic habitat, which has more aquatic vegetation, tended to be more greenish. Additionally, the benthic habitat showed much more variation in color than the limnetic habitat.

After checking the background color, the authors painted two sets of cups, one designed to look like the limnetic background, and one designed to look like the benthic background. Then they put benthic and limnetic sticklebacks on each background, let them adjust their color for 15 minutes, photographed each fish, then measured how well each fish matched its background. They also did the same experiment again, but this time taking pictures every 20 seconds.

What did they find? Limnetic fish and benthic fish were equally good at matching the blue limnetic background, but limnetic fish were not as good at matching the green benthic background as benthics were. The time trial experiment helped to clear up what was going on: benthics rapidly adapted their colors to match the background, but limnetics were doing something different. Limnetic fish were cycling through different colors instead of fixing a particular color. Limnetics were more variable in color when viewed with a benthic background, but even on their “home turf” in the limnetic background, they still showed variation in color, but to a lesser degree.

The authors suggest that the patterns of color chance exhibited by benthics and limnetics are probably adaptive. Their spectrometer data indicates that the benthic habitat is more variable in color, and their background experiments show that benthics are better at rapidly changing their colors to match the background. The limnetic habitat, on the other hand, is much more uniform, so there would be little incentive for limnetics to evolve rapid color matching. However, limnetics may be adapting to their light environment in an entirely different way:  the  “flickering” exhibited by limnetics could be an adaptation to fluctuating light intensity in open water.

After reading this paper, I’m particularly curious what the color-matching abilities of the ancestral marine sticklebacks are like. If they resemble the limnetic, then this color matching ability will be another interesting benthic stickleback adaptation. It will be cool to see if it is possible to discern the genetic basis for this shift in plasticity.

Clark JM, Schluter D. Colour plasticity and background matching in a threespine stickleback species pair. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-8312.2011.01623.x