Biogeography and population genetics of the Lake Malawi cichlid Melanochromis auratus: habitat transience, philopatry and speciation



Migration rates among nine populations of the endemic Lake Malawi cichlid Melanochromis auratus were estimated along a 42-km stretch of habitat in the southern end of the lake. Allele frequencies were surveyed at four simple sequence repeat (SSR) loci. The data suggest migration rates among populations are quite low. Exact tests indicate that statistically detectable allele frequency differences exist between many adjacent populations in the study. The FST value among all populations was estimated to be 0.151 (P < 0.0002). A biogeographic survey suggests that the highest levels of genetic differentiation exist between populations separated by stretches of deep water. Migration is more common between populations separated by shallower water or with shoreline dispersal routes. Reduced allelic diversity was observed at more recently created habitat patches, suggesting that either bottlenecks are associated with the colonization of new habitat patches or that these shallower sites were all founded by genetically depauperate ancestral populations. The extreme philopatry of M. auratus, coupled with the patchy distribution and transient nature of its preferred habitat, provides opportunities for both selection and genetic drift to produce genetic differentiation among populations. Both processes may be important to the evolution of taxonomic diversity in the East African cichlid species flocks.