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SUMMARY

Oceanic threespine sticklebacks have repeatedly and independently evolved new morphologies upon invasions of freshwater habitats. A consistent derived feature of the freshwater form across populations and geography is a shape change of the opercle, a large early developing facial bone. We show that the principal multivariate axis describing opercle shape development from the young larva to the full adult stage of oceanic fish matches the principal axis of evolutionary change associated with relocation from the oceanic to freshwater habitat. The opercle phenotype of freshwater adults closely resembles the phenotype of the bone in juveniles. Thus, evolution to the freshwater condition is in large part by truncation of development; the freshwater fish do not achieve the full ancestral adult bone shape. Additionally, the derived state includes dissociated ontogenetic changes. Dissociability may reflect an underlying modular pattern of opercle development, and facilitate flexibility of morphological evolution.