Novel Concordance Between Geographic, Environmental, and Genetic Structure in the Ecological Generalist Prickly Sculpin (Cottus asper) in California

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Ecological generalists may contain a wealth of information concerning diversity, ecology, and geographic connectivity throughout their range. We explored these ideas in prickly sculpin (Cottus asper), a small generalist freshwater fish species where coastal forms have potentially undergone radiations into inland lacustrine and riverine environments. Using a 962bp cytochrome b mtDNA marker and 11 microsatellites, we estimated diversity, divergence times, gene flow, and structure among populations at 43 locations throughout California. We then incorporated genetic and GIS data into ecological niche models to assess ecological conditions within identified groups. Though not reciprocally monophyletic, unique mtDNA haplotypes, microsatellite clustering, and measures of isolation by distance (Coastal: r = 0.960, P < 0.001; Inland: r = 0.277, P = 0.148) suggest 2 novel taxonomic groups, Coastal and Inland (constrained to Great Central Valley). Divergence estimates of 41–191 kya combined with the regional biogeographic history suggest geographic barriers are absent between groups since divergence, but ecological niche modeling revealed significant environmental differences (t = 10.84, P < 0.001). Introgressed individuals were also discovered between groups in an ecologically and geographically intermediate region. Population structure was limited, predominately found in tributaries of the San Joaquin basin in the Inland group. Overall, C. asper exhibited substantial genetic diversity, despite its ecological generality, reflecting California’s historically unique and complex hydrology. More broadly, this study illustrates variable environments within the range of a generalist species may mask genetic divergences and should not be overlooked in biodiversity assessments.

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