The surprising results, announced in the March 25, 2005, issue of journal Science, bring new data to long-standing debates about how evolution occurs in natural habitats.
"Our motivation is to try to understand how new animal types evolve in nature," said molecular geneticist David M. Kingsley, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "People have been interested in whether a few genes are involved, or whether changes in many different genes are required to produce major changes in wild populations."
The answer, based on new research, is that evolution can occur quickly, with just a few genes changing slightly, allowing newcomers to adapt and populate new and different environments.
In collaboration with zoologist Dolph Schluter, at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and Rick Myers and colleagues at Stanford, Kingsley and graduate student Pamela F. Colosimo focused on a well-studied little fish called the stickleback. The fish -- with three bony spines poking up from their backs -- live both in the seas and in coastal fresh water habitats all around the northern hemisphere.
Sticklebacks are enormously varied, so much so that in the 19th century naturalists had counted about 50 different species. But since then, biologists have realized most populations are recent descendants of marine sticklebacks. Marine fish colonized new freshwater lakes and streams when the last ice age ended 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Then they evolved along separate paths, each adapting to the unique environments created by large scale climate change.
"There are really dramatic morphological and physiological adaptations" to the new environments, Kingsley said.
For example, "sticklebacks vary i