Within the past two million years, more than 450 species of haplochromine cichlids have diverged from a single common ancestor in Lake Malawi. Several factors have been implicated in the diversification of this monophyletic clade, including changes in lake level and low levels of gene flow across limited geographic scales. The objectives of this study were to determine the effect of recent lake-level fluctuations on patterns of allelic diversity in the genus Metriaclima, to describe the patterns of population structure within this genus, and to identify barriers to migration. This was accomplished through an analysis of allele frequencies at four microsatellite loci. Twelve populations spanning four species within Metriaclima were surveyed. The effect of lake-level fluctuations can be seen in the reduced genetic diversity of the most recently colonized sites; however, genetic diversity is not depressed at the species level. Low levels of population structure exist among populations, yet some gene flow persists across long stretches of inhospitable habitat. No general barrier to migration was identified. The results of this study are interpreted with respect to several speciation models. Divergence via population bottlenecks is unlikely due to the large allelic diversity observed within each species. Genetic drift and microallopatric divergence are also rejected because some gene flow does occur between adjacent populations. However, the reduced levels of gene flow between populations does suggest that minor changes in the selective environment could cause the divergence of populations.
Corresponding Editor: S. Edwards