Although some mechanisms of habitat adaptation of conspecific populations have been recently elucidated, the evolution of female preference has rarely been addressed as a force driving habitat adaptation in natural settings. Habitat adaptation of fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra), as found in Middle Europe (Germany), can be framed in an explicit phylogeographic framework that allows for the evolution of habitat adaptation between distinct populations to be traced. Typically, females of S. salamandra only deposit their larvae in small permanent streams. However, some populations of the western post-glacial recolonization lineage use small temporary ponds as larval habitats. Pond larvae display several habitat-specific adaptations that are absent in stream-adapted larvae. We conducted mate preference tests with females from three distinct German populations in order to determine the influence of habitat adaptation versus neutral genetic distance on female mate choice. Two populations that we tested belong to the western post-glacial recolonization group, but are adapted to either stream or pond habitats. The third population is adapted to streams but represents the eastern recolonization lineage.
Despite large genetic distances with FST values around 0.5, the stream-adapted females preferred males from the same habitat type regardless of genetic distance. Conversely, pond-adapted females did not prefer males from their own population when compared to stream-adapted individuals of either lineage.
A comparative analysis of our data showed that habitat adaptation rather than neutral genetic distance correlates with female preference in these salamanders, and that habitat-dependent female preference of a specific pond-reproducing population may have been lost during adaptation to the novel environmental conditions of ponds.