When I was an undergraduate at UNC, I worked in the Pfennig lab on spadefoot toads, which exhibit a striking form of polyphenism. Polyphenism occurs when one genotype can produce multiple phenotypes in response to environmental conditions. As it turns out, stickleback have polyphenic traits too!
Matthew Wund in Susan Foster’s lab at Clark University published a paper in American Naturalist this past year that deals with an especially interesting form of plasticity called the “flexible stem” hypothesis. The idea is that polyphenism in an ancestral species may influence the pattern of diversification in its descendant lineages.
Stickleback are a great system for testing this idea, because freshwater sticklebacks have repeatedly diverged into “benthic” and “limnetic” forms when the ancestral marine form colonized freshwater habitats at the end of the last glaciation period.
Matthew and the Foster lab collected stickleback from a marine population, a freshwater limnetic population, and a freshwater benthic population, and bred them in the lab. They then took the young sticklebacks and fed them either limnetic food(small swimming crustaceans) or benthic food(bottom-dwelling insect larva).
Interestingly, the head morphology of marine fish changed; fish fed a benthic diet developed a head that looked like a benthic freshwater fish, and marine fish fed a limnetic diet developed a limnetic-like head.
The ancestral marine fish exhibit a polyphenism that resembles the descendent freshwater populations, which suggests that this ancestral polyphenism may be important in governing how a lineage diversifies.
Wund, M., Baker, J., Clancy, B., Golub, J., & Foster, S. (2008). A Test of the “Flexible Stem” Model of Evolution: Ancestral Plasticity, Genetic Accommodation, and Morphological Divergence in the Threespine Stickleback Radiation The American Naturalist, 172 (4), 449-462 DOI: 10.1086/590966