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Rapid adaptive evolution of scale-eating kinematics to a novel ecological niche.


The origins of novel trophic specialization, in which organisms begin to exploit novel resources for the first time, may be explained by shifts in behavior such as foraging preferences or feeding kinematics. One way to investigate behavioral mechanisms underlying ecological novelty is by comparing prey capture kinematics among species. We investigated the contribution of kinematics to the origins of a novel ecological niche for scale-eating within a microendemic adaptive radiation of pupfishes on San Salvador Island, Bahamas. We compared prey capture kinematics across three species of pupfish while consuming shrimp and scales in the lab, and found that scale-eating pupfish exhibited peak gape sizes twice as large as other species, but also attacked prey with a more obtuse angle between their lower jaw and suspensorium. We then investigated how this variation in feeding kinematics could explain scale-biting performance by measuring bite size (surface area removed) from standardized gelatin cubes. We found that a combination of larger peak gape and more obtuse lower jaw and suspensorium angles resulted in approximately 40% more surface area removed per strike, indicating that scale-eaters may reside on a performance optimum for scale-biting. To test whether feeding performance could contribute to reproductive isolation between species, we also measured F1 hybrids and found that their kinematics and performance more closely resembled generalists, suggesting that F1 hybrids may have low fitness in the scale-eating niche. Ultimately, our results suggest that the evolution of strike kinematics in this radiation is an adaptation to the novel niche of scale-eating.

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