• Adaptive divergence;
  • gene flow;
  • isolation-by-distance;
  • microsatellites;
  • migration load;
  • natural selection;
  • threespine stickleback

The constraining effect of gene flow on adaptive divergence is often inferred but rarely quantified. We illustrate ways of doing so using stream populations of threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) that experience different levels of gene flow from a parapatric lake population. In the Misty Lake watershed (British Columbia, Canada), the inlet stream population is morphologically divergent from the lake population, and presumably experiences little gene flow from the lake. The outlet stream population, however, shows an intermediate phenotype and may experience more gene flow from the lake. We first used microsatellite data to demonstrate that gene flow from the lake is low into the inlet but high into the outlet, and that gene flow from the lake remains relatively constant with distance along the outlet. We next combined gene flow data with morphological and habitat data to quantify the effect of gene flow on morphological divergence. In one approach, we assumed that inlet stickleback manifest well-adapted phenotypic trait values not constrained by gene flow. We then calculated the deviation between the observed and expected phenotypes for a given habitat in the outlet. In a second approach, we parameterized a quantitative genetic model of adaptive divergence. Both approaches suggest a large impact of gene flow, constraining adaptation by 80–86% in the outlet (i.e., only 14–20% of the expected morphological divergence in the absence of gene flow was observed). Such approaches may be useful in other taxa to estimate how important gene flow is in constraining adaptive divergence in nature.