Evolutionary diversification in stickleback affects ecosystem functioning

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Explaining the ecological causes of evolutionary diversification is a major focus of biology, but surprisingly little has been said about the effects of evolutionary diversification on ecosystems1,2,3. The number of species in an ecosystem and their traits are key predictors of many ecosystem-level processes, such as rates of productivity, biomass sequestration and decomposition4,5. Here we demonstrate short-term ecosystem-level effects of adaptive radiation in the threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) over the past 10,000 years. These fish have undergone recent parallel diversification in several lakes in coastal British Columbia, resulting in the formation of two specialized species (benthic and limnetic) from a generalist ancestor6. Using a mesocosm experiment, we demonstrate that this diversification has strong effects on ecosystems, affecting prey community structure, total primary production, and the nature of dissolved organic materials that regulate the spectral properties of light transmission in the system. However, these ecosystem effects do not simply increase in their relative strength with increasing specialization and species richness; instead, they reflect the complex and indirect consequences of ecosystem engineering by sticklebacks. It is well known that ecological factors influence adaptive radiation7,8. We demonstrate that adaptive radiation, even over short timescales, can have profound effects on ecosystems.

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Figure 1: Differences in community structure and productivity among treatments.
Figure 2: Dissolved organic content and light transmission across treatments.


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We thank A. Albert, T. Vines, D. Yim, P. Tamkee, J. Courchesne, R. Barrett, K. Marchinko, M. Arnegard, J. Sashaw, J. Gosling, S. Hausch, J. Rosenfeld and S. Rogers for assistance in the laboratory and the field. We thank E. B. Rosenblum and members of the Harmon laboratory for comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Luke J. Harmon.

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Harmon, L., Matthews, B., Des Roches, S. et al. Evolutionary diversification in stickleback affects ecosystem functioning. Nature 458, 1167–1170 (2009) doi:10.1038/nature07974

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