The evolution of habitat specialisation in a group of marine triplefin fishes

Research paper by Maren Wellenreuther, Paul T. Barrett, Kendall D. Clements

Indexed on: 18 Mar '08Published on: 18 Mar '08Published in: Evolutionary Ecology


There has been considerable interest in the directionality of resource specialisation during the diversification of lineages. We developed a quantitative method to investigate habitat specialisation in a radiation of New Zealand triplefin fishes, as habitat use appears to be an important axis of diversification in this marine group. The degree of specialisation in 15 species was calculated by comparing each individual to all other individuals of a species, thus allowing for quantitative distinction between species. Species differed in habitat specialisation, but Bayesian comparative methods found no directional trend in the evolution of resource use. Further analyses showed that specialisation had evolved gradually and was phylogenetically constrained, with most differences between species arising toward the tips of the tree. No correlation between the degree of specialisation and body size was detected in this group, suggesting that habitat specialisation evolved independently of body size. Habitat specialisation does not appear to have been an impediment to ecological diversification in this group. Rather, diversification in these fishes appears to have followed different evolutionary trajectories in habitat specialisation, one in which species have sub-partitioned available resources, and another in which species have expanded their use of resources. These findings support recent studies suggesting that diversification does not necessarily proceed from generalised ancestors to specialised descendants.