Rapidly evolving systems offer the chance to observe genetic and phenotypic change in real time. We exploit a well-characterized introduction of cichlid fish into Lake Malawi National Park to document a short history of habitat colonization and the evolution of genes and colour pattern. In the early 1960s, a fish exporter introduced individuals of Cynotilapia afra to a single site (Mitande Point) of Thumbi West Island and, as late as 1983, the species was confined to this location. In 2001, C. afra had colonized the entire perimeter of Thumbi West. In July of that year, we sampled C. afra individuals from six sites around the island and scored variation in dorsal fin colour as well as allelic diversity at six microsatellite loci. We found that, in two decades, C. afra had diverged into genetically distinct, phenotypically different northern and southern populations. We observed a high proportion of hybrids between the introduced C. afra and the native Metriaclima zebra on the southern coast of Thumbi West, and speculate that hybridization is facilitated by low water clarity at these windward sites. The short history of C. afra at Thumbi West is a microcosm of contemporary evolutionary divergence and may provide the opportunity to study the process from start to finish in genetic detail.
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