Wave-driven water flow is a major force structuring marine communities. Species distributions are partly determined by the ability to cope with variation in water flow, such as differences in the assemblage of fish species found in a given water flow environment being linked to swimming ability (based on fin shape and mode of locomotion). It remains unclear, however, whether similar assembly rules apply within a species. Here we show phenotypic variation among sites in traits functionally linked to swimming ability in the damselfish Acanthochromis polyacanthus. These sites differ in wave energy and the observed patterns of phenotypic differences within A. polyacanthus closely mirrored those seen at the interspecific level. Fish from high-exposure sites had more tapered fins and higher maximum metabolic rates than conspecifics from sheltered sites. This translates to a 36% larger aerobic scope and 33% faster critical swimming speed for fish from exposed sites. Our results suggest that functional relationships among swimming phenotypes and water flow not only structure species assemblages, but can also shape patterns of phenotypic divergence within species. Close links between locomotor phenotype and local water flow conditions appear to be important for species distributions as well as phenotypic divergence across environmental gradients.
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