Get access

Population structure on breeding grounds of Lake Malawi’s ‘twilight zone’ cichlid fishes


Martin Genner, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UG, UK.


Aim  Free-ranging benthopelagic fishes often have large population sizes and high rates of dispersal. These traits can act to homogenize population structure across the distributional range of a species and to reduce the likelihood of allopatric speciation. The apparent absence of any barriers to gene flow among populations, together with prior molecular evidence for panmixia across the ranges of three species, has resulted in Diplotaxodon, a genus of benthopelagic cichlid fishes of Lake Malawi, being proposed as a candidate case of sympatric speciation. Our aim was to further investigate this possibility by testing for intraspecific genetic subdivision among breeding populations, and intraspecific differences in breeding habitat.

Location  Lake Malawi, central-east Africa.

Methods  We analysed eight microsatellite DNA loci to test for spatial genetic differences among populations on breeding grounds of eight Diplotaxodon species. We also tested for temporal population genetic differences within breeding grounds of three species. Records of ripe Diplotaxodon encountered during sampling were analysed to test if spatial variation in assemblage structure was linked to nearshore water depth and geographic proximity of sampling sites.

Results  Consistent with previous molecular evidence, within four of the eight species tested we found no evidence of spatial genetic structuring among breeding populations. However, within the other four species we found slight yet significant spatial genetic differences, indicating restricted gene flow among breeding grounds. There was no evidence of temporal genetic differences within sites. Analyses of the distributions of ripe Diplotaxodon revealed differences in assemblage structure linked to nearshore water depth.

Main conclusions  Together, these results demonstrate both the evolution of fidelity to deep-water breeding locations in some Diplotaxodon species, and differences in breeding habitat among species. These findings are consistent with a role for divergence of breeding habitat in speciation of these cichlids, possibly promoted by dispersal limitation among geographically segregated spawning aggregations.