• gene flow;
  • genetic drift;
  • microsatellites;
  • physical barrier;
  • tagging;
  • Xiphophorus helleri


Swordtails (Xiphophorus; Poeciliidae) have figured prominently in research on fish mating behaviours, sexual selection, and carcinogenesis, but their population structures and dispersal patterns have been relatively neglected. Using nine microsatellite loci, we estimated genetic differentiation in Xiphophorus helleri within and between adjacent streams in Belize. The genetic data were complemented by a tagging study of movement within one stream. In the absence of physical dispersal barriers (waterfalls), population structure followed an isolation by distance (IBD) pattern. Genetic differentiation (FST up to 0.07) was significant between and within creeks, despite high dispersal in the latter as judged by the tagging data. Such heterogeneity apparently was a result of genetic drift in local demes, due to small population sizes and highly skewed paternity. The IBD pattern was interrupted by waterfalls, boosting FST above 0.30 between adjacent samples across these barriers. Overall, our results are helpful in understanding the interplay of evolutionary forces and population dynamics in a small fish living in a changeable habitat.