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Cichlids fish species (credit: Ole Seehausen)
© Ole Seehausen

There are more than 32,000 different species of fish living in freshwater and saltwater habitats around the world. To explain the diversity of species among fish, scientists had been referring to adaptive radiation. However, a study published in Nature Communications provides an alternative view of how some fish species evolved.

Adaptive radiation is the rapid evolution of one species into a variety of different species acclimated to different environments or conditions. This evolutionary concept is primarily based on the idea that the need to adapt ecologically and morphologically to survive drives the emergence of many species from a single common ancestor. An international team of scientists recently determined that adaptive radiation among cichlid fish may be due to more than just ecological pressures.

Cichlids in Africa have evolved and diversified to the point that they live in more than 30 lakes around the continent. The team of researchers discovered 40 new species of cichlids among the fish residing in Lake Mweru in East Africa. Each of the new species had adapted to consume one or more of the various food sources in the lake. The scientists determined that the new species came into existence because of a rare phenomenon among all animal species: hybridization (i.e., interspecies mating). The notion that a fish species would mate with a different fish species is not generally accepted among evolutionary scientists—just as no one would expect a fox to mate with a coyote.

Nevertheless, the scientists discovered that under certain circumstances, female cichlids will mate with males from other fish species if the females couldn’t see clearly or the male fish of other species had similar coloring to male cichlids. Although this insight into how cichlid species evolve is novel, scientists believe that this form of hybridization has been going on for a million years. The discovery also casts a different light on hybridization, which had been perceived as a negative event that would cause a loss of biodiversity but may now be perceived as a positive event for evolution and biodiversity.

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