• melanism;
  • association preference;
  • mate choice;
  • sexual selection;
  • polymorphism


Variation in pigmentation traits is an effective window to evolutionary processes due to their importance for survival and reproduction. In particular, one of the leading hypotheses for the maintenance of conspicuous pigmentation in natural populations is its signaling function in mate choice. Here, we demonstrate the occurrence of melanism in poeciliid fishes of the genus Poecilia that inhabits toxic, hydrogen sulfide springs in southern Mexico and the absence of melanism from closely related populations in reference habitats lacking hydrogen sulfide. Assays of female mate preference in both habitat types were used to examine whether divergence in female preference for melanism contributes to its maintenance in hydrogen sulfide springs. We found significant variation in female preferences for melanistic males. Specifically, melanistic females from the toxic spring exhibited a significant preference for melanistic males, while non-melanistic females from the same population exhibited no preference. Females from the non-sulfidic reference population discriminated strongly against melanistic males. Preferences of melanistic females appear to be a significant force in the maintenance of melanism in sulfidic habitats and suggest a change in preference as the divergence from non-sulfidic ancestors. Potential polymorphism in preference within the hydrogen sulfide spring indicates that preference for melanistic males may not be environmentally controlled. Thus, a change in preference following divergence can promote the maintenance of variation in pigmentation within populations and between divergent habitats.