Red operculum spots, body size, maturation and evidence for a satellite male phenotype in non-native European populations of pumpkinseed Lepomis gibbosus.
Carotenoid-based pigmentation is a striking feature of many taxa, yet the function, if any, of colour traits is often unclear. Pumpkinseed Lepomis gibbosus, a widely introduced freshwater sunfish that exhibits alternative male mating strategies, express a striking, red operculum spot. To investigate the potential function of this red spot as a signal in this species' mating system, we determined the presence and measured the size of red operculum spots in fish collected from 12 populations in five European countries in which pumpkinseed is an established non-native species. We subsequently related the presence and size of the red spot to body size and mating strategy, based on an analysis of relative gonad size (gonado-somatic index, GSI), using a mixed modelling approach. The study demonstrated that the presence of a red operculum spot in pumpkinseed is associated with sexual maturation, with GSI frequency distributions suggesting that cuckolders in some non-native populations comprised both sneaker and satellite males, the latter not having previously been reported for this species. Further, the size of red spot correlated strongly with body size in parental and cuckolder males, although there was no difference in the presence or size of the red operculum spot between male mating strategies. The function of a red operculum spot in females is not clear but may be partly mediated by pleiotropic genetic mechanisms. Red operculum spots appear to function as signals of male maturation and body size in pumpkinseed, irrespective of mating strategy.