Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umeå University, SE-901 87 Umeå, SWEDEN.
The work in this thesis deals with the ecology and evolution of adaptive individual variation. Ecologists have long used niche theory to describe the ecology of a species as a whole, treating conspecific individuals as ecological equivalent. During recent years, research about individual variation in diet and morphology has gained interest in adaptive radiations and ecological speciation. Such variation among individual niche use may have important conservation implications as well as ecological and evolutionary implications. However, up to date we know very little about the extension of this phenomenon in natural populations and the mechanisms behind it.
The results in this thesis show that the extension of individual diet specialization is widely spread throughout the animal kingdom. The variation in diet is mainly correlated to morphological variation but not always. Furthermore, this variation in diet and morphology among individuals could be both genetically determined and environmentally induced and it mainly comes from trade-offs in foraging efficiency between different prey types.
The results from a number of studies of perch also show that individual perch differ in morphology and diet depending on habitat, where littoral perch has a deeper body compared to pelagic perch. This difference in morphology corresponds to functional expectations and is related to foraging efficiency trade- offs between foraging in the littoral and pelagic zone of a lake. The variation in morphology in perch is mainly due to phenotypic plasticity but there are also small genetic differences between the littoral and pelagic perch. Two separate studies show that both predation and competition may be important mechanism for the variation in morphology and diet in perch.
In conclusion, the results in this thesis show that individual variation in diet and habitat choice is a common phenomenon with lots of ecological and evolutionary implications. However, there are many mechanisms involved in this phenomenon on which we are just about to start learning more about, and only further research in this area will give us the full insight.