1. Conspecific populations living in habitats with different risks of predation often show phenotypic variation in defensive traits. Traits of two species of mayflies (Baetidae: Baetis bicaudatus and Baetis sp. nov.) differ between populations living in fish and fishless streams in a high altitude drainage basin in western Colorado, U.S.A. We tested for genetic differentiation between mayfly populations in these two habitat types, assuming that lack of genetic differentiation would be consistent with the hypothesis that those traits are phenotypically plastic.
2. Previous work has shown that larvae of both species behave differently and undergo different developmental pathways in adjacent fish and fishless streams. These phenotypic differences in behaviour and development have been induced experimentally, suggesting that populations from fishless streams have the genetic capability to respond to fish.
3. During summer 2001 we collected Baetis larvae from several fish and fishless streams, and from fish and fishless sections of the same streams. We used allozymes and a fragment of the cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 mitochondrial gene to examine genetic variation of Baetis individuals within and among streams.
4. Results showed that genetic variation exists among populations of the same species of Baetis from different streams, but none of that variation was associated with the presence or absence of fish. These data confirm that populations of Baetis living in fish and fishless streams are not genetically distinct, and are consistent with the hypothesis that traits associated with environments of different risk are phenotypically plastic.