Some aspects of adaptation in a polymorphism for breeding colours in the Threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus))



Polymorphism in the nuptial colouration of male Threespine sticklebacks (Garterosteus aculeatus L.) was studied. In Lake Wapato in Eastern Washington, approximately 14% of the breeding males develop typical red nuptial colouration while others develop various colours which were grouped into a non-red category. The hypothesis was tested that red males are adaptive in Lake Wapato as a result of sexual selection and differential egg predation.

In a series of mate preference tests, females demonstrated a significant preference for red males over non-red males. In a second experiment, using artiticially coloured non-red males, it was shown that the females are responding to the red colouration alone. This evidence suggests that one of the selective pressures maintaining the red morph is sexual selection.

In a stomach analysis of male and female sticklebacks collected from a breeding colony it was found that 51 % of the fish examined had stickleback eggs in their stomachs. Both male and female sticklebacks eat a large number of eggs; however, males eat significantly more eggs than females. Eggs were found to be most susceptible to predation during their first four days of development. Given that red ventral colouration has threat value, red males may also be adaptive because of a reduction in egg predation within their territories in contrast to non-red males.

One of the selective forces against red males is probably differential predation by trout (Salmo gairdneri). This trout predation has been shown to be extensive in Lake Wapato. The opposing selective forces discussed in this paper cannot maintain the polymorphism; they are only components of fitness of the colour morphs.