The evolution of an exaggerated trait can lead to a novel morphology that allows organisms to exploit new niches. The molecular bases of such phenotypes can reveal insights into the evolution of unique traits. Here, we investigate a rare morphological innovation in modern haplochromine cichlids, a flap of fibrous tissue that causes a pronounced projection of the snout, which is limited to a single genus (Labeotropheus) of Lake Malawi cichlids. We compare flap size in our focal species L. fuelleborni (LF) to homologous landmarks in other closely related cichlid species that show a range of ecological overlap with LF, and demonstrate that variation in flap size is discontinuous among Malawi cichlid species. We demonstrate further that flap development in LF begins at early juvenile stages, and scales allometrically with body size. We then used an F2 hybrid mapping population, derived via crossing LF to a close ecological competitor that lacks this trait, Tropheops “red cheek” (TRC), to identify quantitative trait loci (QTL) that underlie flap development. In all, we identified four loci associated with variation in flap size, and for each the LF allele contributed to a larger flap. We next cross-referenced our QTL map with population genomic data, comparing natural populations of LF and TRC, to identify divergent polymorphisms within each QTL interval. Candidate genes for flap development are discussed. Together, these data indicate a relatively simple and tractable genetic basis for this morphological innovation, which is consistent with its apparently sudden and saltatory evolutionary history. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 324B: 662–670, 2015. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
How to cite this article: Concannon MR, Albertson RC. 2015. The genetic and developmental basis of an exaggerated craniofacial trait in East African cichlids. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 324B:662–670.