Low temperature and low salinity drive putatively adaptive growth differences in populations of threespine stickleback


Colonisation can expose organisms to novel combinations of abiotic and biotic factors and drive adaptive divergence. Yet, studies investigating the interactive effects of multiple abiotic factors on the evolution of physiological traits remain rare. Here we examine the effects of low salinity, low temperature, and their interaction on the growth of three North American populations of threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). In north-temperate freshwater habitats, stickleback populations experience a combination of low salinity and low winter temperatures that are not experienced by the ancestral marine and anadromous populations. Here we show that both salinity and temperature, and their interaction, have stronger negative effects on marine and anadromous populations than a freshwater population. Freshwater stickleback showed only a ~20% reduction in specific growth rate when exposed to 4 °C, while marine and anadromous stickleback showed sharp declines (82% and 74% respectively) under these conditions. The modest decreases in growth in freshwater stickleback in fresh water in the cold strongly suggest that this population has the capacity for physiological compensation to offset the negative thermodynamic effects of low temperature on growth. These results are suggestive of adaptive evolution in response to the interactive effects of low salinity and low temperature during freshwater colonisation.

Scientific Reports