Implications of a fossil stickleback assemblage for Darwinian gradualism

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Abstract

Darwin postulated that a complete fossil record would contain numerous gradual transitions between ancestral and descendant species, but 150 years after publication of The Origin of Species, few such transitions have materialized. The fossil stickleback Gasterosteus doryssus and the deposit in which it occurs provide excellent conditions to detect such transitions. Abundant, well-preserved fossils occur in a stratigraphic setting with fine temporal resolution. The paleoecology of G. doryssus resembles the ecology of modern lakes that harbour the phenotypically similar three-spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus. Gasterosteus aculeatus are primitively highly armoured, but G. doryssus comprised two contemporaneous biological species with relatively weak armour, including a near-shore, benthic feeder (benthic) and an offshore planktivore (limnetic). The benthic species expanded its range into the limnetic zone of the lake, where it apparently switched to planktivory and evolved reduced armour within c. 5000 years in response to directional selection. Although gradual evolution of mean phenotypes occurred, a single major gene caused much of evolutionary change of the pelvic skeleton. Thus, Darwin's expectation that transitions between species in the fossil record would be gradual was met at a fine time scale, but for pelvic structure, a well-studied trait, his expectation that gradual change would depend entirely on numerous, small, heritable differences among individuals was incorrect.

Ancillary