Ecological speciation occurs when reproductive isolation evolves ultimately as a result of divergent natural selection between populations inhabiting different environments or exploiting alternative resources. I tested a prediction of the ecological model concerning the fitness of hybrids between two young, sympatric species of threespine sticklebacks (Benthics and Limnetics). The two species are ecologically and morphologically divergent: the Benthic is adapted to feeding on invertebrates in the littoral zone of the lake whereas the Limnetic is adapted to feeding on zooplankton in the open water. The growth rate of two types of hybrids, the Benthic backcross and the Limnetic backcross, as well as both parent species, was evaluated in enclosures in both parental habitats in the lake. The use of backcrosses is ideal because a comparison of their growth rates in the two habitats estimates an ecologically dependent component of their fitness while controlling for any intrinsic genetic incompatibilities that may exist between the Benthic and Limnetic genomes. The backcross results revealed a striking pattern of ecological dependence: in the littoral zone, Benthic backcrosses grew at approximately twice the rate of Limnetic backcrosses, while in the open water, Limnetic backcrosses grew at approximately twice the rate of Benthic backcrosses. Such a reversal of relative fitness of the two cross-types in the two environments provides strong evidence that divergent natural selection has played a central role in the evolution of postmating isolation between Benthics and Limnetics. Although the rank order of growth rates of all cross-types in the littoral zone was Benthic > Benthic backcross > Limnetic backcross > Limnetic, neither backcross differed significantly from the parent from which it was mainly derived. Implications of this result are discussed in terms of ecological speciation and possible introgressive hybridization between the species. Results in the open water were less clear and were not fully consistent with the ecological model of speciation, mainly as a result of the low growth rate of Limnetics. However, analysis of the diet of the fish in the open water suggests that these enclosures may not have been fully successful at replicating the food regimes characteristic of this habitat.
Corresponding Editor: G. Wallis