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The adaptive radiation of cichlid fishes in East African Lake Malawi encompasses over 500 species that are believed to have evolved within the last 800,000 years from a common founder population. It has been proposed that hybridization between ancestral lineages can provide the genetic raw material to fuel such exceptionally high diversification rates, and evidence for this has recently been presented for the Lake Victoria region cichlid superflock. Here, we report that Lake Malawi cichlid genomes also show evidence of hybridization between two lineages that split 3-4 Ma, today represented by Lake Victoria cichlids and the riverine Astatotilapia sp. "ruaha blue." The two ancestries in Malawi cichlid genomes are present in large blocks of several kilobases, but there is little variation in this pattern between Malawi cichlid species, suggesting that the large-scale mosaic structure of the genomes was largely established prior to the radiation. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of polymorphic variants apparently derived from the hybridization are interspersed in the genomes. These loci show a striking excess of differentiation across ecological subgroups in the Lake Malawi cichlid assemblage, and parental alleles sort differentially into benthic and pelagic Malawi cichlid lineages, consistent with strong differential selection on these loci during species divergence. Furthermore, these loci are enriched for genes involved in immune response and vision, including opsin genes previously identified as important for speciation. Our results reinforce the role of ancestral hybridization in explosive diversification by demonstrating its significance in one of the largest recent vertebrate adaptive radiations.


  • adaptive radiation, cichlid fish, gene flow, hybrid swarm
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1100-1113
Number of pages14
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number4
Early online date18 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2020

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