Evol Ecol Res 17: 565-581 (2016)     Full PDF if your library subscribes.

The relative roles of genes and rearing environment
on the spatial cognitive ability of two sympatric species of threespine stickleback

Jonatan Martinez1,2*, Jason Keagy1,2,3*, Benjamin Wurst1,2, William Fetzner4,5 and Janette W. Boughman1,2,3

1Department of Integrative Biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA,  2BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA,  3Program in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA,  4Department of Biology and Marine Biology, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, North Carolina, USA and  5Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, North Carolina, USA

Correspondence: J. Keagy, Department of Integrative Biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA. email: keagy@msu.edu


Background: Recently diverged populations provide a powerful model for studying trait evolution. Benthic sticklebacks primarily occupy vegetated areas of lakes, a spatially complex environment. Limnetic sticklebacks primarily occupy open water in lakes, a spatially simple environment. In a T-maze spatial learning assay, wild-caught benthic sticklebacks perform better than wild-caught limnetic sticklebacks. It is not known whether this difference has a genetic basis and is thus the result of evolution or is instead a plastic response to the contrasting environments.

Question: To what extent are differences in the spatial cognitive ability of benthic and limnetic sticklebacks influenced by genetic differences, rearing environment, or the interaction between the two?

Methods: Using wild-caught limnetic and benthic fish from Paxton and Priest Lakes, we made pure-species crosses in the lab. We reared the fertilized eggs in spatially simple or spatially complex lab environments. We used a previously validated T-maze spatial learning assay to quantify the ability of adult fish from each rearing environment to learn an association between a visual landmark and a reward location.

Results: Lab-reared benthic fish learned the spatial task faster and made fewer errors than lab-reared limnetic fish, which supports a genetic basis underlying species differences in spatial learning ability. However, we found no significant differences between fish raised in different artificial environments.

Keywords: cognitive evolution, common garden, genetic basis, phenotypic plasticity, spatial learning, threespine stickleback.

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