Phenotypic plasticity and the possible role of genetic assimilation: Hypoxia-induced trade-offs in the morphological traits of an African cichlid


Lauren J. Chapman E-mail:


In this study we investigate the possible role of phenotypic plasticity and genetic assimilation in the process of adaptation and evolutionary change in the cichlid Pseudocrenilabrus multicolor victoriae. In the field we compared a population of a stable hypoxic habitat with one of a stable well-oxygenated habitat. In the laboratory, we compared individuals from the same mother raised under hypoxic or well-oxygenated conditions to examine phenotypic plasticity. Morphological parameters of three categories were measured: (a) the gill apparatus, (b) the surrounding structural elements, and (c) the outer shape of the fish. Swamp-dwelling fish had a 29% greater total gill surface area than fish from the well-oxygenated habitat due to their larger gill filament length and greater lamellar area. In the plasticity experiment, total gill surface area was 18% greater in the hypoxia group due to a larger number of longer filaments. Surrounding elements and outer shape also differed between the field populations and between fish grown under hypoxic and well-oxygenated conditions, but there was disparity between the field results and the plasticity experiment. The disparity between field and experimental fish may be due to: (a) differences in selection pressures between populations, (b) different constraints for genetic and plasticity changes, or (c) selection against plastic responses to hypoxia. Our results suggest that both (a) and (c) are involved.