Linking ecology, morphology, and metabolism: Niche differentiation in sympatric populations of closely related species of the genus Littorina (Neritrema)

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Divergence of ecological niches in phylogenetically closely related species indicates the importance of ecology in speciation, especially for sympatric species are considered. Such ecological diversification provides an advantage of alleviating interspecies competition and promotes more efficient exploitation of environmental resources, thus being a basis for ecological speciation. We analyzed a group of closely related species from the subgenus Neritrema (genus Littorina, Caenogastropoda) from the gravel-bouldery shores. In two distant sites at the Barents and Norwegian Sea, we examined the patterns of snail distribution during low tide (quantitative sampling stratified by intertidal level, presence of macrophytes, macrophyte species, and position on them), shell shape and its variability (geometric morphometrics), and metabolic characteristics (metabolomic profiling). The studied species diversified microbiotopes, which imply an important role of ecological specification in the recent evolution of this group. The only exception to this trend was the species pair L. arcana / L. saxatilis, which is specifically discussed. The ecological divergence was accompanied by differences in shell shape and metabolomic characteristics. Significant differences were found between L. obtusata versus L. fabalis and L. saxatilis / L. arcana versus L. compressa both in shell morphology and in metabolomes. L. saxatilis demonstrated a clear variability depending on intertidal level which corresponds to a shift in conditions within the occupied microhabitat. Interestingly, the differences between L. arcana (inhabiting the upper intertidal level) and L. compressa (inhabiting the lower one) were analogous to those between the upper and lower fractions of L. saxatilis. No significant level-dependent changes were found between the upper and lower fractions of L. obtusata, most probably due to habitat amelioration by fucoid macroalgae. All these results are discussed in the contexts of the role of ecology in speciation, ecological niche dynamics and conservatism, and evolutionary history of the Neritrema species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11134-11154
Number of pages21
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number16
Early online date22 Jul 2021
StatePublished - Aug 2021

Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Ecology


  • Littorina
  • cryptic species
  • ecological niche
  • ecological speciation
  • geometric morphometrics
  • habitat amelioration
  • metabolomics
  • microhabitat distribution
  • morphological disparity
  • niche differentiation
  • shell shape


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