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Open Access Research article

Experimental demonstration of ecological character displacement

Jabus G Tyerman1*, Melanie Bertrand1, Christine C Spencer2 and Michael Doebeli13

Author Affiliations

1 Dept. Zoology & Centre for Biodiversity, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Blvd., Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4 Canada

2 Dept. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, 25 Harbord St., Toronto, Ontario, M5S 3G5, Canada

3 Dept. Mathematics, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Blvd., Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4 Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:34  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-34

Published: 30 January 2008



The evolutionary consequences of competition are of great interest to researchers studying sympatric speciation, adaptive radiation, species coexistence and ecological assembly. Competition's role in driving evolutionary change in phenotypic distributions, and thus causing ecological character displacement, has been inferred from biogeographical data and measurements of divergent selection on a focal species in the presence of competitors. However, direct experimental demonstrations of character displacement due to competition are rare.


We demonstrate a causal role for competition in ecological character displacement. Using populations of the bacterium Escherichia coli that have adaptively diversified into ecotypes exploiting different carbon resources, we show that when interspecific competition is relaxed, phenotypic distributions converge. When we reinstate competition, phenotypic distributions diverge.


This accordion-like dynamic provides direct experimental evidence that competition for resources can cause evolutionary shifts in resource-related characters.