This is the first installment of a weekly feature on the Wainwright Lab blog.

First, a little introduction: My name is Matthew McGee, and I’m a graduate student in the Population Biology program at UC Davis with Peter Wainwright.

(For those wondering, Peter is the derived fish on the left.)

The species I’m primarily interested in is the threespine stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus (which I generally refer to as just “stickleback”, because they’re much more commonly used in research than the other stickleback species).

My research deals with stickleback functional trophic morphology and evolution; or put another way, how the food sticklebacks eat shapes their appearance and how they change over time.

Threespine stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

So why sticklebacks in particular?

Clearly, because sticklebacks are awesome.

They’re awesome because they have a few key qualities that make them an excellent model system for evolutionary biology. Sticklebacks are marine fish that can tolerate freshwater, and populations of stickleback will often colonize lakes and streams from the ocean, then diverge from the marine population in interesting ways.

From a functional perspective, they’ve got a great assortment of interesting traits: lateral “armor” plates, serrated pelvic spines instead of fins, different mouth shapes, and they produce their own form of glue!

Stickleback are also a great genetic system, because they have a fully sequenced genome, and it’s easy to cross different types of stickleback with each other, which can help us locate the genes involved in particular traits.

As if that wasn’t enough, stickleback are also a model system for behavior, toxicology, and development.

In short, sticklebacks = awesome.

Every week, I’ll be blogging on a different aspect of stickleback biology, which will usually involve a discussion of a stickleback-themed peer-reviewed research publication.

Join me next week, when I talk about phylogenetics and the stickleback family tree!