, Volume 181, Issue 4, pp 1209–1220 | Cite as

Investment in boney defensive traits alters organismal stoichiometry and excretion in fish

  • Rana W. El-SabaawiEmail author
  • Misha L. Warbanski
  • Seth M. Rudman
  • Rachel Hovel
  • Blake Matthews
Ecosystem ecology – original research


Understanding how trait diversification alters ecosystem processes is an important goal for ecological and evolutionary studies. Ecological stoichiometry provides a framework for predicting how traits affect ecosystem function. The growth rate hypothesis of ecological stoichiometry links growth and phosphorus (P) body composition in taxa where nucleic acids are a significant pool of body P. In vertebrates, however, most of the P is bound within bone, and organisms with boney structures can vary in terms of the relative contributions of bones to body composition. Threespine stickleback populations have substantial variation in boney armour plating. Shaped by natural selection, this variation provides a model system to study the links between evolution of bone content, elemental body composition, and P excretion. We measure carbon:nitrogen:P body composition from stickleback populations that vary in armour phenotype. We develop a mechanistic mass-balance model to explore factors affecting P excretion, and measure P excretion from two populations with contrasting armour phenotypes. Completely armoured morphs have higher body %P but excrete more P per unit body mass than other morphs. The model suggests that such differences are driven by phenotypic differences in P intake as well as body %P composition. Our results show that while investment in boney traits alters the elemental composition of vertebrate bodies, excretion rates depend on how acquisition and assimilation traits covary with boney trait investment. These results also provide a stoichiometric hypothesis to explain the repeated loss of boney armour in threespine sticklebacks upon colonizing freshwater ecosystems.


Eco-evolutionary interactions Elemental phenotype Nitrogen Nutrient cycles Phosphorus 



The authors thank Katie Peichel, Andrew Hendry, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on this paper. This research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery grant to R. El-Sabaawi and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Undergraduate Student Research Award fellowship to M. Warbanski.

Author contribution statement

R. E. S. conceived the study and wrote the manuscript. R. E. S., M. L. W., S. R., R. H., and B. M. collected the samples, analyzed the data, and provided editorial feedback.

Supplementary material

442_2016_3599_MOESM1_ESM.docx (282 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 281 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rana W. El-Sabaawi
    • 1
    Email author
  • Misha L. Warbanski
    • 1
  • Seth M. Rudman
    • 3
  • Rachel Hovel
    • 4
  • Blake Matthews
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada
  2. 2.Department of Aquatic Ecology, Center for Ecology, Evolution and BiogeochemistryEawagKastanienbaumSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of ZoologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  4. 4.School of Aquatic and Fishery SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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