Date of Award

Spring 4-29-2016

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Ecology and Environmental Sciences


Michael T. Kinnison

Second Committee Member

Eric P. Palkovacs

Third Committee Member

Brian McGill

Additional Committee Members

Kevin Simin

Stephen Coghlan Jr.


The study of contemporary evolution and eco-evolutionary dynamics is classically defined in terms of genetic evolution, but the actual suite of processes driving contemporary trait change is likely much more complex than often credited. This dissertation considers additional mechanisms of trait change that might be important to an emerging model system for study of contemporary evolution and eco-evolutionary dynamics. Specifically, the research focuses on phenotypically plastic and demographic trait variation in Eastern and Western Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis and G. holbrooki) facing the major ecological gradient of predation risk. Plasticity experiments employed a common-garden rearing design to manipulate fish predator cues experienced by individuals, their parents, or their grandparents and in turn quantify reaction norms in mosquitofish size, shape, and behavior. The two species of mosquitofish showed divergent plastic responses in behavior, with the relatively bolder G. holbrooki becoming even bolder in response to predator cues. In contrast, males and females within species showed parallel behavioral responses. Despite strong sexual dimorphism, both sexes and both species showed parallel patterns of plasticity toward streamlining of body shape when exposed to predators. Interestingly, mosquitofish also showed evidence of transmitting predator cues across generations, where female G. affinis become shyer and more streamlined when their parents or grandparents experienced predators. In contrast, male G. affinis showed little evidence of transgenerational plasticity and appear to rely more heavily on their own experience. Another set of field surveys and experiments with G. holbrooki considered the potential role of sexual dimorphism and demographic variation in sex ratios as another form of trait variation with possible community and ecosystem consequences. Natural population surveys revealed female-biased sex ratios and higher primary production in the absence of predators. Mesocosm experiments suggested males and females differed in dietary preferences and that both sex ratio and density influence community responses. Although these findings support a need to expand the current eco-evolutionary synthesis to mechanisms beyond just genetic evolution, they also support some general patterns in these mechanisms and ways in which they might work with evolution to produce an even more dynamic interaction of ecology and trait change in nature.