The evolutionary trajectories of ecological niches have profound impacts on community, population and speciation dynamics, yet the underlying causes of niche lability vs. stasis are poorly understood. Here, we conducted a field experiment to quantify the effects of competition and, conversely, competitive release on the microevolutionary processes driving microhabitat niche evolution in an annual plant population restricted to California vernal pool wetlands. Removing competitors generated a strong increase in mean fitness, the exposure of genetically based niche variation and directional selection for niche evolution in the experimental population. In contrast, genetic variation in the microhabitat niche and directional selection for niche evolution were not detected in individuals growing with competitors. These results indicate that ecological opportunity (here, the removal of competitors) can trigger the immediate expression of latent, heritable niche variation that is necessary for rapid evolutionary responses; conversely, competitors may restrict niche evolution, contributing to niche conservatism in saturated communities.
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