Sexual imprinting on ecologically divergent traits leads to sexual isolation in sticklebacks

Genevieve M. Kozak, Megan L. Head, Janette W. Boughman

Abstract

During sexual imprinting, offspring learn parental phenotypes and then select mates who are similar to their parents. Imprinting has been thought to contribute to the process of speciation in only a few rare cases; this is despite imprinting's potential to generate assortative mating and solve the problem of recombination in ecological speciation. If offspring imprint on parental traits under divergent selection, these traits will then be involved in both adaptation and mate preference. Such ‘magic traits’ easily generate sexual isolation and facilitate speciation. In this study, we show that imprinting occurs in two ecologically divergent stickleback species (benthics and limnetics: Gasterosteus spp.). Cross-fostered females preferred mates of their foster father's species. Furthermore, imprinting is essential for sexual isolation between species; isolation was reduced when females were raised without fathers. Daughters imprinted on father odour and colour during a critical period early in development. These traits have diverged between the species owing to differences in ecology. Therefore, we provide the first evidence that imprinting links ecological adaptation to sexual isolation between species. Our results suggest that imprinting may facilitate the evolution of sexual isolation during ecological speciation, may be especially important in cases of rapid diversification, and thus play an integral role in the generation of biodiversity.

  • Received November 11, 2010.
  • Accepted December 23, 2010.
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