Ecological Character Displacement


Some morphological differences between closely related species living in the same environment have been enhanced by natural selection resulting from competition between the species or the negative effects of interbreeding. These evolutionary changes are known as ecological and reproductive character displacement, respectively. Ecological character displacement, the subject of this article, helps us to understand how complex communities are built up from simpler ones through ecological adjustments of the constituent species. It also may be involved in the late stages in speciation when formerly allopatric populations come together in sympatry. Examples are given from studies of birds in nature and sticklebacks in experiments. There are few cases of ecological character displacement in nature where the evidence is sufficiently strong to demonstrate evolution by natural selection and to rule out alternative explanations of the causes. These have been supplemented by experiments: there is scope and need for more.

Key Concepts:

  • Character displacement is a process of evolutionary divergence of coexisting species.

  • Competition for resources, such as food, is reduced as a result of divergence.

  • Natural selection causes the evolutionary change.

  • Closely related species differ in morphology more in sympatry than in allopatry.

  • Experiments attempt to recreate conditions that are conducive to character displacement in nature.

  • Solitary species are released from competition and broaden their ecological niches.

  • Character displacement helps to explain how complex communities of potential competitors develop from simple ones.

  • Character displacement is one of several types of evolutionary adjustments made by coexisting species.

  • Its signature should be seen most clearly in young adaptive radiations.

  • The main question about character displacement is not whether it occurs but how important it is.

Keywords: divergence; competition; food; natural selection; evolution; adaptive radiation

Figure 1.

The classical case of character displacement is a pattern of enhanced morphological difference in sympatry: two species of Eurasian rock nuthatches differ more in beak size (and eye stripe size) where they occur together in sympatry (a and d) than where they occur alone in allopatry (b and c). The species are Sitta neumayer (c, Greece; d, Iran) and Sitta tephtonota (a, Iran; b, Russia). Reproduced from Grant . © Springer.

Figure 2.

Character displacement in the beak size of the Medium Ground Finch population (Geospiza fortis) on Daphne Major Island, Galápagos. Relatively high mortality of birds with large beaks during a drought in 2004 gave rise to a sharp decrease in average beak size. Differential mortality was caused by competition with Large Ground Finches (Geospiza magnirostris) (Figure ). The net result was an enhanced difference between the species. Mean beak size (solid circles) and 95% confidence intervals (vertical bars) are shown for each year. The broken horizontal lines mark the limits of confidence for the mean of the first large sample in 1973. Adapted from Grant and Grant . © Princeton University Press.

Figure 3.

Character displacement of Darwin's finches. Large members (a) of the Medium Ground Finch Population (Geospiza fortis) died from starvation at a higher rate than the small members (c) in the drought of 2004. This happened as a result of competition between large Geospiza fortis and Large Ground Finches (Geospiza magnirostris) (b) that are superior exploiters of the large and hard woody fruits of Tribulus cistoides (d) at times of food scarcity. Reproduced from Grant and Grant . © AAAS.

Figure 4.

Sticklebacks in the Gasterosteus aculeatus complex; a limnetic species above and a benthic species below. Reproduced with permission from Nicole Bedford. © Nicole Bedford.

Figure 5.

The classical experiment of character displacement. The growth of sticklebacks is reduced in the presence (broken line) of a competitor species compared with their growth in the absence of competitors (solid line). The effect of competitors is strongest on the fish that are most similar to the competitors in morphology (i.e. large index values in this example).



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Further Reading

Goldberg EE , Lande R and Price TD (2012) Population regulation and character displacement in a seasonal environment. American Naturalist 179: 693–705.

Grant PR (1999) Ecology and Evolution of Darwin's Finches, 2nd edn. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Grant PR and Grant BR (2014) 40 Years of Evolution. Darwin's Finches on Daphne Major Island. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hansen TE , Armbruster WS and Antonsen L (2000) Comparative analysis of character displacement and special adaptations as illustrated by the evolution of Dalechampsia blossoms. American Naturalist 156 (supplement): S17–S34.

Konomura J and Chiba S (2007) Ecological character displacement caused by reproductive interference. Journal of Theoretical Biology 247: 354–364.

Radtkey RR , Fallon SM and Case TJ (1997) Character displacement of some Cnemidophorus lizards revisited: a phylogenetic analysis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 94: 9740–9745.

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How to Cite close
Grant, Peter R(Dec 2013) Ecological Character Displacement. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001811.pub2]