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How to investigate the origins of novelty: insights gained from genetic, behavioral, and fitness perspectives


Biologists are drawn to the most extraordinary adaptations in the natural world, often referred to as evolutionary novelties, yet rarely do we understand the microevolutionary context underlying the origins of novel traits, behaviors, or ecological niches. Here we discuss insights gained into the origins of novelty from a research program spanning biological levels of organization from genotype to fitness in Caribbean pupfishes. We focus on a case study of the origins of novel trophic specialists on San Salvador Island, Bahamas and place this radiation in the context of other rapid radiations. We highlight questions that can be addressed about the origins of novelty at different biological levels, such as measuring the isolation of novel phenotypes on the fitness landscape, locating the spatial and temporal origins of adaptive variation contributing to novelty, detecting dysfunctional gene regulation due to adaptive divergence, and connecting behaviors with novel traits. Evolutionary novelties are rare, almost by definition, and we conclude that integrative case studies can provide insights into this rarity relative to the dynamics of adaptation to more common ecological niches and repeated parallel speciation, such as the relative isolation of novel phenotypes on fitness landscapes and the transient availability of ecological, genetic, and behavioral opportunities.

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