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Dissection and Flat-mounting of the Threespine Stickleback Branchial Skeleton.

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The posterior pharyngeal segments of the vertebrate head give rise to the branchial skeleton, the primary site of food processing in fish. The morphology of the fish branchial skeleton is matched to a species' diet. Threespine stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) have emerged as a model system to study the genetic and developmental basis of evolved differences in a variety of traits. Marine populations of sticklebacks have repeatedly colonized countless new freshwater lakes and creeks. Adaptation to the new diet in these freshwater environments likely underlies a series of craniofacial changes that have evolved repeatedly in independently derived freshwater populations. These include three major patterning changes to the branchial skeleton: reductions in the number and length of gill raker bones, increases in pharyngeal tooth number, and increased branchial bone lengths. Here we describe a detailed protocol to dissect and flat-mount the internal branchial skeleton in threespine stickleback fish. Dissection of the entire three-dimensional branchial skeleton and mounting it flat into a largely two-dimensional prep allows for the easy visualization and quantification of branchial skeleton morphology. This dissection method is inexpensive, fast, relatively easy, and applicable to a wide variety of fish species. In sticklebacks, this efficient method allows the quantification of skeletal morphology in genetic crosses to map genomic regions controlling craniofacial patterning.

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