Quantitative analysis of dental microwear in threespine stickleback: a new approach to analysis of trophic ecology in aquatic vertebrates


M. A. Purnell, Department of Geology, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK. E-mail: mark.purnell@leicester.ac.uk


  • 1The threespine stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus is an important model organism in studies of genomic and phenotypic evolution, adaptation and speciation. Fossil Gasterosteus offer the potential to test models derived from studies of extant fishes over true evolutionary time-scales. Competition for food resources, for example, plays an important part in stickleback speciation, causing divergence in food gathering traits and ecological character displacement, but it is not possible to test this model in fossils because evidence of diet is almost never preserved.
  • 2We demonstrate here that quantitative analysis of dental microwear, a technique previously applied only to mammals, provides a reliable guide to the dietary preferences of stickleback. Teeth from stickleback raised under laboratory conditions exhibit microwear patterns that vary systematically according to substrate coarseness and whether fishes feed on Daphnia within the water column, or on chironomid larvae from the bottom. Furthermore, microwear data exhibit a progressive shift in their distribution that tracks differences in experimental feeding treatments.
  • 3Microwear in wild populations also exhibits a relationship with feeding. In blind assessments of trophic niche based on microwear patterns we were able to correctly assign all but one equivocal population to trophic group. Microwear data from wild stickleback exhibit a shift in distribution comparable with that observed across the range of treatments in the laboratory and these allow populations to be ranked according to the degree to which they approach fully benthic or fully limnetic feeding.
  • 4Our results demonstrate that microwear has the potential to be a powerful tool in the analysis of fish trophic ecology, particularly in the analysis of species pairs and niche differentiation. It has advantages over the trophic snapshot provided by analysis of stomach contents in that microwear reflects feeding and food preferences over a longer period of time, and can be applied where these data are unavailable. Furthermore, it is applicable to extinct organisms and fossils, allowing the role of trophic ecology, niche partitioning and competition over evolutionary time-scales to be investigated for the first time.