The extensive phenotypic polymorphism in the European whitefish has triggered evolutionary research in order to disentangle mechanisms underlying diversification. To illuminate the ecological distinctiveness in polymorphic whitefish, and evaluate taxonomic designations, we studied nine Norwegian lakes in three watercourses, which each harboured pairs of divergent whitefish morphs. We compared the morphology and life history of these morphs, documented the extent of genetic differentiation between them, and contrasted the niche use of sympatric morphs along both the habitat and resource axes. In all cases, sympatric morphs differed in the number of gill rakers, a highly heritable trait related to trophic utilization. Individual growth rate, age and size at maturity, diet and habitat use also differed between morphs within lakes, but were remarkably similar across lakes within the same morph. Microsatellite analyses confirmed for all but one pair that sympatric morphs were significantly genetically different, and that similar morphs from different lakes likely have a polyphyletic origin. These results are most compatible with the process of parallel evolution through recurrent postglacial divergence into pelagic and benthic niches in each of these lakes. We propose that sparsely and densely rakered whitefish sympatric pairs may be a likely case of ecological speciation, mediated in oligotrophic lakes with few trophic competitors.
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