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Keywords:

  • Adaptive divergence;
  • foraging morphology;
  • Gasterosteus aculeatus;
  • gene flow;
  • genetic differentiation;
  • reproductive isolation

Divergent selection between contrasting habitats can sometimes drive adaptive divergence and the evolution of reproductive isolation in the face of initially high gene flow. “Progress” along this ecological speciation pathway can range from minimal divergence to full speciation. We examine this variation for threespine stickleback fish that evolved independently across eight lake-stream habitat transitions. By quantifying stickleback diets, we show that lake-stream transitions usually coincide with limnetic-benthic ecotones. By measuring genetically based phenotypes, we show that these ecotones often generate adaptive divergence in foraging morphology. By analyzing neutral genetic markers (microsatellites), we show that adaptive divergence is often associated with the presence of two populations maintaining at least partial reproductive isolation in parapatry. Coalescent-based simulations further suggest that these populations have diverged with gene flow within a few thousand generations, although we cannot rule out the possibility of phases of allopatric divergence. Finally, we find striking variation among the eight lake-stream transitions in progress toward ecological speciation. This variation allows us to hypothesize that progress is generally promoted by strong divergent selection and limited dispersal across the habitat transitions. Our study thus makes a case for ecological speciation in a parapatric context, while also highlighting variation in the outcome.