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Biological Sciences


Background: The canals of the mechanosensory lateral line system are components of the dermatocranium, and demonstrate phenotypic variation in bony fishes. Widened lateral line canals evolved convergently in a limited number of families of teleost fishes and it had been hypothesized that they evolved from narrow canals via heterochrony and explore modularity in the lateral line system. Two species of cichlids with different canal phenotypes were used to test a hypothesis of heterochrony. Histological material prepared from ontogenetic series of Aulonocara stuartgranti (widened canals) and Tramitichromis sp. (narrow canals) was analyzed using ANCOVA to determine rates of increase in canal diameter and neuromast size (length, width) and to compare the timing of onset of critical stages in canal morphogenesis (enclosure, ossification).

Results: A faster rate of increase in canal diameter and neuromast width (but not length), and a delay in onset of canal morphogenesis were found in Aulonocara relative to Tramitichromis. However, rates of increase in canal diameter and neuromast size among canals, among canal portions and among canals segments reveal similar trends within both species.

Conclusion: The evolution of widened lateral line canals is the result of dissociated heterochrony - acceleration in the rate of increase of both canal diameter and neuromast size, and delay in the onset of canal morphogenesis, in Aulonocara (widened canals) relative to Tramitichromis (narrow canals). Common rates of increase in canal diameter and neuromast size among canal portions in different dermatocranial bones and among canal segments reflect the absence of local heterochronies, and suggest modular integration among canals in each species. Thus, canal and neuromast morphology are more strongly influenced by their identities as features of the lateral line system than by the attributes of the dermatocranial bones in which the canals are found. Rate heterochrony manifested during the larval stage ensures that the widened canal phenotype, known to be associated with benthic prey detection in adult Aulonocara, is already present before feeding commences. Heterochrony can likely explain the convergent evolution of widened lateral line canals among diverse taxa. The lateral line system provides a valuable context for novel analyses of the relationship between developmental processes and the evolution of behaviorally and ecologically relevant phenotypes in fishes.

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