The effect of ecological factors on eye morphology in the western rainbowfish, Melanotaenia australis [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Thomas J. Lisney, Shaun P. Collin, and Jennifer L. Kelley

Ecological factors such as spatial habitat complexity and diet can explain variation in visual morphology, but few studies have sought to determine whether visual specialisation can occur among populations of the same species. We used a small Australian freshwater fish (the western rainbowfish, Melanotaenia australis) to determine whether populations showed variation in eye size and eye position, and whether this variation could be explained by environmental (light availability, turbidity) and ecological (predation risk, habitat complexity, invertebrate abundance) variables. We investigated three aspects of eye morphology – (1) eye size relative to body size, (2) pupil size relative to eye size and (3) eye position in the head – for fish collected from 14 sites in a major river catchment in northwest Western Australia. We found significant variation among populations in all three measures of eye morphology, but no effect of sex on eye size or eye position. Variation in eye diameter and eye position was best explained by the level of habitat complexity. Specifically, fish occurring in habitats with low complexity (i.e. open water) tended to have smaller, more dorsally located eyes than those occurring in more complex habitats (i.e. vegetation present). The size of the pupil relative to the size of the eye was most influenced by the presence of surrounding rock formations; fish living in gorge habitats had significantly smaller pupils (relative to eye size) than those occupying semi-gorge sites or open habitats. Our findings reveal that different ecological and environmental factors contribute to habitat-specific visual specialisations within a species.

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