1. Within-species phenotypic variation is hugely variable and may play a role in determining the range of habitats a species can exploit. Our study addressed two main questions: 1. does phenotypic variation allow some species (i.e. habitat-generalists) to use heterogeneous habitats and 2. are habitat-generalists more variable than species occupying relatively homogeneous environments (i.e. habitat-specialists)?
2. We examined the morphology of the common bully (Gobiomorphus cotidianus), a habitat-generalist eleotrid fish found in lakes and rivers throughout New Zealand. We also compared the level of morphological variability in common bullies with that in the closely related redfin bully (Gobiomorphus huttoni), a habitat-specialist of moderate- and fast-flowing rivers.
3. Common and redfin bullies were collected from the South Island of New Zealand. A series of body and fin measurements were made, and cephalic dorsal head pores of the mechanosensory lateral-line system were counted. The pores and associated canal neuromasts are important for prey detection and predator avoidance in other species, particularly, in turbulent conditions where the effectiveness of superficial neuromasts may be compromised.
4. The common bully had more dorsal head pores in fish from rivers than in those from lakes. This pattern was apparent only in adults, suggesting that selective pressures associated with adult habitat, be it rivers or lakes, are responsible.
5. As expected, there was greater phenotypic variability in the generalist common bully than in the specialist redfin bully, particularly with regard to the sensory pores, suggesting their importance for survival in turbulence.
6. We identified habitat-related patterns in phenotypic variability in a generalist species and demonstrated a link between phenotypic variability and habitat breadth. Variation in the common bully may explain its ability to occupy a range of habitats.