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International Journal of Ecology
Volume 2011 (2011), Article ID 942847, 15 pages
Review Article

Sympatric Speciation in Threespine Stickleback: Why Not?

Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Section of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin, One University Station C0930, Austin, TX 78712, USA

Received 3 May 2011; Accepted 25 June 2011

Academic Editor: Andrew Hendry

Copyright © 2011 Daniel I. Bolnick. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Numerous theoretical models suggest that sympatric speciation is possible when frequency-dependent interactions such as intraspecific competition drive disruptive selection on a trait that is also subject to assortative mating. Here, I review recent evidence that both conditions are met in lake populations of threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). Nonetheless, sympatric speciation appears to be rare or absent in stickleback. If stickleback qualitatively fit the theoretical requirements for sympatric speciation, why do they not undergo sympatric speciation? I present simulations showing that disruptive selection and assortative mating in stickleback, though present, are too weak to drive speciation. Furthermore, I summarize empirical evidence that disruptive selection in stickleback drives other forms of evolutionary diversification (plasticity, increased trait variance, and sexual dimorphism) instead of speciation. In conclusion, core assumptions of sympatric speciation theory seem to be qualitatively reasonable for stickleback, but speciation may nevertheless fail because of (i) quantitative mismatches with theory and (ii) alternative evolutionary outcomes.