Is sexual selection driving diversification of the bioluminescent ponyfishes (Teleostei: Leiognathidae)?

Prosanta Chakrabarty, Louisiana State University
Matthew P. Davis, Louisiana State University
W. Leo Smith, Field Museum of Natural History
Zachary H. Baldwin, American Museum of Natural History
John S. Sparks, American Museum of Natural History


Sexual selection may facilitate genetic isolation among populations and result in increased rates of diversification. As a mechanism driving diversification, sexual selection has been invoked and upheld in numerous empirical studies across disparate taxa, including birds, plants and spiders. In this study, we investigate the potential impact of sexual selection on the tempo and mode of ponyfish evolution. Ponyfishes (Leiognathidae) are bioluminescent marine fishes that exhibit sexually dimorphic features of their unique light-organ system (LOS). Although sexual selection is widely considered to be the driving force behind ponyfish speciation, this hypothesis has never been formally tested. Given that some leiognathid species have a sexually dimorphic LOS, whereas others do not, this family provides an excellent system within which to study the potential role of sexual selection in diversification and morphological differentiation. In this study, we estimate the phylogenetic relationships and divergence times for Leiognathidae, investigate the tempo and mode of ponyfish diversification, and explore morphological shape disparity among leiognathid clades. We recover strong support for a monophyletic Leiognathidae and estimate that all major ponyfish lineages evolved during the Paleogene. Our studies of ponyfish diversification demonstrate that there is no conclusive evidence that sexually dimorphic clades are significantly more species rich than nonsexually dimorphic lineages and that evidence is lacking to support any significant diversification rate increases within ponyfishes. Further, we detected a lineage-through-time signal indicating that ponyfishes have continuously diversified through time, which is in contrast to many recent diversification studies that identify lineage-through-time patterns that support mechanisms of density-dependent speciation. Additionally, there is no evidence of sexual selection hindering morphological diversity, as sexually dimorphic taxa are shown to be more disparate in overall shape morphology than nonsexually dimorphic taxa. Our results suggest that if sexual selection is occurring in ponyfish evolution, it is likely acting only as a genetic isolating mechanism that has allowed ponyfishes to continuously diversify over time, with no overall impact on increases in diversification rate or morphological disparity. © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.