The Cichlid Fishes of Lake Malawi, Africa

Abstract of Publication

Huber, R., M.J. van Staaden, L.S. Kaufman, and K.F. Liem. 1997. Microhabitat use, trophic patterns, and the evolution of brain structure in African cichlids. Brain Behavior and Evolution 50 (3): 167-182.  

The species assemblages of cichlids in the three largest African Great Lakes are among the richest concentrations of vertebrate species on earth. The faunas are broadly similar in terms of trophic diversity, species richness, rates of endemism, and taxonomic composition, yet they are historically independent of each other. Hence, they offer a true and unique evolutionary experiment to test hypotheses concerning the mutual dependencies of ecology and brain morphology. We examined the brains of 189 species of cichlids from the three large lakes: Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi. A first paper demonstrated that patterns of evolutionary change in cichlid brain morphology are similar across taxonomic boundaries as well as across the three lakes [van Staaden et al., 1995 (1994) ZACS (Zoology - Analysis of Complex Systems) 98: 165-178]. Here we report a close relationship between the relative sizes of various brain structures and variables related to the utilization of habitat and prey. Causality is difficult to assign in this context, nonetheless, prey size and agility, turbidity levels, depth, and substrate complexity are all highly predictive of variation in brain structure. Areas associated with primary sensory functions such as vision and taste relate significantly to differences in feeding habits. Turbidity and depth are closely associated with differences in eye size, and large eyes are associated with species that pick plankton from the water column. Piscivorous taxa and others that utilize motile prey are characterized by a well developed optic tectum and a large cerebellum compared to species that prey on molluscs or plants. Structures relating to taste are well developed in species feeding on benthos over muddy or sandy substrates. The data militated against the existence of compensatory changes in brain structure. Thus enhanced development of a particular function is generally not accompanied by a parallel reduction of structures related to other modalities. Although genetic and environmental influences during ontogeny of the brain cannot be isolated, this study provides a rich source of hypotheses concerning the way the nervous system functions under various environmental conditions and how it has responded to natural selection.




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