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Testing an ecophysiological mechanism of morphological plasticity in pupfish and its relevance to conservation efforts for endangered Devils Hole pupfish
Sean C. Lema, Gabrielle A. Nevitt


Imperiled species that have been translocated or established in captivity can show rapid alterations in morphology and behavior, but the proximate mechanisms of such phenotypic changes are rarely known. Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) are endemic to a single desert pool and are characterized by a small body, large head and eyes, and lack of pelvic fins. To lessen the risk of extinction, additional populations of C. diabolis were established in artificial refuges. Yet, pupfish in these refuges rapidly shifted to a larger body, smaller head and eyes, and greater body depth. Here we examined how food availability and temperature, which differ between these habitats, influence morphological development in closely related Amargosa River pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis amargosae). We were interested in knowing whether these environmental factors could developmentally shift Amargosa River pupfish toward the morphology typical of pupfish in Devil's Hole. By regulating food ration, we created groups of pupfish with low, medium and high growth rates. Pupfish with low growth showed proportionally larger head and eyes, smaller body depth, and reduction in pelvic fin development. Elevated temperature further inhibited pelvic fin development in all treatments. Pupfish in the low growth group also showed reduced levels of thyroid hormone, suggesting a possible physiological mechanism underlying these morphological changes. To test this mechanism further, pupfish were reared with goitrogens to pharmacologically inhibit endogenous thyroid hormone production. Pupfish given goitrogens developed larger heads and eyes, shallower bodies, and reduced pelvic fins. Taken together, our results suggest that changes in environmental factors affecting the growth and thyroid hormone status of juvenile pupfish may play a developmental role in generating the morphological differences between C. diabolis in Devil's Hole and the refuges. These findings illustrate the need to incorporate a mechanistic understanding of phenotypic plasticity into conservation strategies to preserve imperiled fishes.

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