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Ecology. 2006 Mar;87(3):769-79.

Ecological opportunity and phenotypic plasticity interact to promote character displacement and species coexistence.

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1
Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599, USA. dpfennig@email.unc.edu

Abstract

We investigated the roles of resource availability and phenotypic plasticity in promoting ecological character displacement (i.e., trait evolution stemming from resource competition between species). Because ecological character displacement generates new populations that differ in resource use, this process should only occur when exploitable resources are available. We tested this hypothesis in two species of spadefoot toads (Spea bombifrons and S. multiplicata) whose tadpoles use phenotypic plasticity to develop into either an omnivore morph, which specializes on detritus, or a physically distinctive carnivore morph, which specializes on shrimp. Both species grow best on shrimp, but when reared together, S. bombifrons outcompetes S. multiplicata for shrimp and S. multiplicata outcompetes S. bombifrons for detritus. We found that when each species occurred alone in the field, they produced similar proportions of omnivores and carnivores. When the two species occurred together, however, they underwent ecological character displacement in larval development, with S. multiplicata producing mostly omnivores, and S. bombifrons producing mostly carnivores. We combined observations of natural populations with experiments to evaluate whether such character displacement was only possible when both shrimp and detritus were relatively abundant. Mixed-species ponds contained abundant detritus and shrimp, in contrast with nearby pure-species ponds, which were deficient in one resource. Experiments revealed that S. multiplicata competed poorly when detritus was rare and that S. bombifrons competed poorly when shrimp was rare. In nature, when one of these two resources was scarce, one species was missing, perhaps through competitive exclusion by the species that was the superior competitor for the remaining resource. Thus, ecological character displacement and, therefore, coexistence of close competitors, was only possible when diverse resources were available. Finally, even if exploitable resources are available, character displacement is not guaranteed to transpire if species cannot utilize such resources expeditiously. Phenotypic plasticity provides a general and important mechanism for facilitating resource partitioning. Thus, by facilitating shifts in resource use, phenotypic plasticity and ecological opportunity may often interact to promote divergence and coexistence of competitors.

PMID:
16602305
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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