Examining differences in colour plasticity between closely-related species in relation to the heterogeneity of background colours found in their respective habitats may offer important insight into how cryptic colour change evolves in natural populations. In the present study, we examined whether nonbreeding dorsal body coloration has diverged between sympatric species of stickleback along with changes in habitat-specific background colours. The small, limnetic species primarily occupies the pelagic zone and the large, benthic species inhabits the littoral zone. We placed benthic and limnetic sticklebacks against extremes of habitat background colours and measured their degree of background matching and colour plasticity. Benthics matched the littoral background colour more closely than did the limnetics, although there was no difference between species in their resemblance to the pelagic background colour. Benthics were able to resemble both background colours by exhibiting greater directional colour plasticity in their dorsal body coloration than limnetics, which may be an adaptive response to the greater spectral heterogeneity of the littoral zone. The present study highlights how habitat-specific spectral characteristics may shape cryptic coloration differences between stickleback species. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 102, 902–914.