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What is a Stickleback?

By Angie Bates
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A stickleback is a type of spiny fish found in the northern hemisphere. Sticklebacks are part of the genus gasterosteus and encompass eight different species, all distinguished by a varying number of back spines. Sticklebacks are often studied by evolutionary biologists because of the speed with which they evolve.

Growing to about 7 inches (18 cm) at their largest, sticklebacks can have between two and 16 spines in front of their dorsal fin. Most species have large eyes, square tails, and, instead of scales, bony plates covering their bodies. Colors vary between species. During mating season, however, males change color, becoming shades of bright yellow to black. Sticklebacks usually live one to three years.

Breeding among sticklebacks is extremely ritualized. In the spring, males build nests using plants and excretions from their kidneys. They then swim in patterns near the nest to attract a mate.

Once attracted, the female will lay her eggs in the nest, then the male will fertilize the eggs. After fertilization, the male will remain at the nest guarding and aerating the eggs until they hatch and for a period after hatching. This behavior is seen in all species of stickleback except the white.

Nocturnal feeders, sticklebacks usually eat invertebrates, fish eggs, and sometimes other fish. Large fish, birds, and some mammals, such as otters, prey on sticklebacks. Although humans do not eat these fish, they may use them for oil, fertilizer, and animal food.

Sticklebacks live in both salt water and fresh water. Their ancestors originally all lived in the open ocean, but many species have since moved into lakes and rivers, adapting to fresh water environments. The three-spined stickleback is one of the most common freshwater fish found in Britain. It is also common in other areas of Europe, the United States, and Asia.

Evolutionary biologists study the stickleback because of its ability to evolve quickly in a new environment, sometimes making noticeable changes within ten years. Study of these fish is compared to Charles Darwin's study of finches on the Galapagos islands. Many freshwater sticklebacks have lost some or all of the bony plates and belly spines present on their marine ancestors. These plates and spines were necessary for protection in marine waters, but made feeding and maneuvering difficult in freshwater environments. The sticklebacks' basic coloring also lightened to help provide camouflage in the new freshwater environment.

There is evidence that sticklebacks share a few genes, such as skin color, with other animals including humans. Scientists believe that studying sticklebacks evolution may lead to information about the human evolutionary process. As a result, extensive research is still being performed on the evolution of the stickleback.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a stickleback and where can it be found?

A stickleback is a small, scaleless fish known for the spines on its back, which serve as a defense mechanism. These fish are predominantly found in freshwater environments, but some species inhabit marine waters. They are widespread across the Northern Hemisphere, including North America, Europe, and Asia.

How do sticklebacks adapt to different environments?

Sticklebacks exhibit remarkable adaptability, with some populations transitioning from saltwater to freshwater habitats. This adaptability is reflected in their morphology and behavior, with freshwater sticklebacks often having fewer spines and a more robust body shape compared to their marine counterparts, aiding in predator evasion in different environments.

What do sticklebacks eat?

Sticklebacks are opportunistic feeders, primarily consuming small invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and larvae. Their diet can vary based on the availability of prey in their habitat. They play a crucial role in the aquatic food web, both as predators of smaller organisms and as prey for larger species.

What is unique about stickleback mating and reproduction?

Sticklebacks have a distinctive mating ritual where males develop bright colors and build elaborate nests to attract females. After spawning, males guard the eggs and ventilate them by fanning water with their fins, showcasing a high level of parental care uncommon among fish.

How do sticklebacks contribute to scientific research?

Sticklebacks are a model organism in evolutionary biology due to their rapid adaptation to new environments. Scientists study them to understand genetic changes associated with evolution and speciation. Their transparent embryos also make them valuable for developmental biology research.

Are stickleback populations at risk?

While sticklebacks are not currently listed as endangered, they are susceptible to threats such as habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change. Conservation efforts are important to maintain healthy populations, especially in areas where local stickleback species have unique evolutionary traits.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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