Three-spined sticklebacks are speciation machines. When retreating glaciers exposed lakes and rivers around the coasts of northern North America and Eurasia, these armor-plated little fish colonized the new freshwater habitats from the ocean, and adapted to the threats and resources they found there. But colonists kept coming from the ocean, and sometimes they found not an empty lake or a population of sticklebacks like themselves, but unfamiliar fishes that ate some of the same things they did.
Competition between the new arrivals and their evolutionary cousins gave an advantage to fish that relied less on the resources they both used. And, eventually, in many of those freshwater lakes, there were two types of stickleback: one that made a living in the shallow limnetic zone of ponds, eating free-swimming plankton; and one in the deeper benthic zone, snapping up prey from the bottom sediment or off of rocks and vegetation. Across many different bodies of water where they’ve been found, benthic and limnetic sticklebacks mate mostly within their types, meeting the classical definition of separate species.
The specific genetic differences between freshwater sticklebacks and their oceanic ancestors have been dissected in detail—they mostly boil down to change at a single gene that reduced the bony armor plating in freshwater populations. Now, a study published recently in Nature has dissected the genetic differences between the benthic and limnetic forms, and it shows that the genetic basis of sticklebacks’ repeated ecological speciation has been quite a bit more complicated than their move from the ocean.