• Speciation;
  • gene flow;
  • selection – natural;
  • reproductive isolation;
  • signaling/courtship

Mate choice by phenotype matching, whereby individuals prefer a mate whose phenotype is similar to their own, should facilitate speciation with gene flow. This is because the genes that control mate signal (the phenotype being matched) also determine the preferred mate signal (“mate preference”). Speciation is made even easier if phenotype matching is based on a trait under divergent natural selection. In this case, assortative mating should readily evolve as a byproduct of divergent selection on the trait. Previous observational studies of assortative mating between sympatric, hybridizing threespine stickleback species (Gasterosteus aculeatus complex) suggested that phenotype matching might occur by body size, a trait under divergent natural selection. To test this, we used experimental manipulation of body size to rule out the effects of confounding variables. We found that size-manipulated benthic and limnetic stickleback females prefer mates whose body size more closely matches their own. It is thus likely that assortative mating by phenotype matching has facilitated the origin and persistence of benthic and limnetic threespine sticklebacks in the face of gene flow.