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Show me your colour: the neuroendocrine and molecular underpinnings of phenotypic variation in colour and aggression in cichlid fish


One of the most intriguing questions in evolutionary biology is why some groups of animals contain many species while others contain only a few. One important factor influencing biodiversity is selection on a male secondary sexual trait arising from aggressive competition between males to gain access to females or resources. Colour polymorphic species are excellent to study effects of competition on the evolution of phenotypic diversity. Typically one morph is behaviourally dominant over the other. This covariance in phenotypic traits has implications for sexual and natural selection and patterns of gene flow. Next to addressing such ultimate questions, it is highly important to study the proximate mechanisms underlying phenotypic covariance. The species flock of Lake Victoria cichlid fish is a major model system for adaptive radiation and speciation research. In addition, the polymorphic cichlid species Astatotilapia burtoni has become a major model system used to understand the molecular basis of complex vertebrate behaviours. In the proposed project I will combine the strength of these two systems. I will utilize the outgoing phase to learn genomic and neuroendocrine tools and will identify candidate genes and gene clusters underlying the polymorphism in colour and behaviour in A. burtoni. I will then test the hypothesis that hormones modulating coloration have pleiotropic effects on behaviour and physiology. During the return phase I will employ my newly acquired expertise to identify genes underlying phenotypic diversity in several species of Lake Victoria cichlids. The results of these experiments will provide a proximate framework linking the vast knowledge obtained through years of studying a traditional model organism (A. burtoni) with the unique opportunity provided by the “natural mutant screen” of African Great Lake cichlids. The training I seek with this proposal will give me unique and highly desirable skills as a behavioural biologist.

Call for proposal

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Rapenburg 70
2311 EZ Leiden
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
EU contribution
€ 239 956,49
Administrative Contact
Ton Brouwer (Mr.)