The release of sediment and algae-boosting fertilizers into Lake Victoria can cause cichlid species to interbreed in the murky water, according to Ole Seehausen, evolutionary biologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Kastanienbaum.

In a recent article published in Nature, Seehausen and his colleagues are shedding some light on the question of how closely related species of cichlids living adjacent to each other in Lake Victoria manages to avoid interbreeding. According to Seehausen et al, species may develop and stay distinct because of how the members of each species see colours.

Seehausen and his research team have studied closely related species of Lake Victoria cichlids where the males are either blue or red. It has since long been known that females of these species prefer to mate with the male displaying the brightest colours, but the new research suggests that both sexes have evolved to preferentially see only red or blue. This means that if a brightly coloured red male swims by a blue-seeing female, she will not be able to appreciate his sexy brightness since see can not see the colour red.

Reds and blues live in the exact same spot,” says Seehausen,. “Colour is very important in mate choice.”

In order to fully understand the role of vision in underwater evolution, we must be aware of how light acts when it penetrates the water. Blue colours shine much brighter than red ones in the shallows, while red pigmentation trumps blue as we proceed farther down. As you probably have guessed already, red cichlid species tend to be found near the surface in Lake Victoria, while the blue ones inhabit greater depths.

To learn more about what happens to cichlids in the transition between red and blue zones in the lake, Seehausen and his team studied species inhabiting the shores of five different islands. The cloudiness of the surrounding waters varies from island to island due to variations in sedimentation, giving the researchers a great opportunity to study the effects of varying water clearness.

In comparatively clear waters, the colour that appears brighter slowly and gradually changes from red to blue with depth. This makes each species stay within its own zone and prevents interbreeding. In more clouded waters, the change from red to blue occurs much more suddenly, causing a higher prevalence of interbreeding between closely related species of fish.

Further testing in laboratory aquariums showed that hybrid females, like the ones living in cloudy waters, did not favour red males over blue ones or the other way around. This distinguished them from non-hybrid females, since females belonging to a species with red-sensing eyes picked red males in the laboratory tanks while the blue-sensing females opted for blue beaus.

Seehausen is now worried that the unchecked release of sediment and algae-promoting fertilizers into Lake Victoria will cause more and more fish to interbreed, thereby greatly reducing the number of species in a lake famous for its astonishing biological diversity and degree of endemic species. “Species diversity in this lake has imploded in the last 30 years,” Seehausen says. “It is the largest human-witnessed mass extinction of vertebrates.

You can read more in the article “Speciation through sensory drive in cichlid fish” by Seehausen et al.