Background. Efficient communication requires that signals are well transmitted and perceived in a given environment. Natural selection therefore drives the evolution of different signals in different environments. In addition, environmental heterogeneity at small spatial or temporal scales may favour phenotypic plasticity in signaling traits, as plasticity may allow rapid adjustment of signal expression to optimize transmission. In this study, we explore signal plasticity in the nuptial coloration of Lake Victoria cichlids, Pundamilia pundamilia and Pundamilia nyererei. These two species differ in male coloration, which mediates species-assortative mating. They occur in adjacent depth ranges with different light environments. Given the close proximity of their habitats, overlapping at some locations, plasticity in male coloration could contribute to male reproductive success but interfere with reproductive isolation. Methods. Wereared P. pundamilia, P. nyererei, and their hybrids under light conditions mimicking the two depth ranges in Lake Victoria. From photographs, we quantified the nuptial coloration of males, spanning the entire visible spectrum. In experiment 1, we examined developmental colour plasticity by comparing sibling males reared in each light condition. In experiment 2, we assessed colour plasticity in adulthood, by switching adult males between conditions and tracking coloration for 100 days. Results. We found that nuptial colour in Pundamilia did respond plastically to our light manipulations, but only in a limited hue range. Fish that were reared in light conditions mimicking the deeper habitat were significantly greener than those in conditions mimicking shallow waters. The species-specific nuptial colours (blue and red) did not change. When moved to the opposing light condition as adults, males did not change colour. Discussion. Our results show that species-specific nuptial colours, which are subject to strong divergent selection by female choice, are not plastic. We do find plasticity in green coloration, a response that may contribute to visual conspicuousness in darker, red-shifted light environments. These results suggest that light-environment-induced plasticity in male nuptial coloration in P. pundamilia and P. nyererei is limited and does not interfere with reproductive isolation.
Wright, D. S., Rietveld, E., & Maan, M. E. (2018). Developmental effects of environmental light on male nuptial coloration in Lake Victoria cichlid fish. PeerJ, 2018(1). https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4209