Otolith shape lends support to the sensory drive hypothesis in rockfishes
The sensory drive hypothesis proposes that environmental factors affect both signalling dynamics and the evolution of signals and receivers. Sound detection and equilibrium in marine fishes are senses dependent on the sagittae otoliths, whose morphological variability appears intrinsically linked to the environment. The aim of this study was to understand if and which environmental factors could be conditioning the evolution of this sensory structure, therefore lending support to the sensory drive hypothesis. Thus, we analysed the otolith shape of 42 rockfish species (Sebastes spp.) to test the potential associations with the phylogeny, biological (age), ecological (feeding habit and depth distribution) and biogeographical factors. The results showed strong differences in the otolith shapes of some species, noticeably influenced by ecological and biogeographical factors. Moreover, otolith shape was clearly conditioned by phylogeny, but with a strong environmental effect, cautioning about the use of this structure for the systematics of rockfishes or other marine fishes. However, our most relevant finding is that the data supported the sensory drive hypothesis as a force promoting the radiation of the genus Sebastes. This hypothesis holds that adaptive divergence in communication has significant influence relative to other life history traits. It has already been established in Sebastes for visual characters and organs; our results showed that it applies to otolith transformations as well (despite the clear influence of feeding and depth), expanding the scope of the hypothesis to other sensory structures.