• Adaptive dynamics;
  • asymmetrical competition;
  • bistability;
  • density-dependent selection;
  • evolutionary reversals;
  • population cycles;
  • population dynamics

Abstract How does the process of life-history evolution interplay with population dynamics? Almost all models that have addressed this question assume that any combination of phenotypic traits uniquely determine the ecological population state. Here we show that if multiple ecological equilibria can exist, the evolution of a trait that relates to competitive performance can undergo adaptive reversals that drive cyclic alternation between population equilibria. The occurrence of evolutionary reversals requires neither environmentally driven changes in selective forces nor the coevolution of interactions with other species. The mechanism inducing evolutionary reversals is twofold. First, there exist phenotypes near which mutants can invade and yet fail to become fixed; although these mutants are eventually eliminated, their transitory growth causes the resident population to switch to an alternative ecological equilibrium. Second, asymmetrical competition causes the direction of selection to revert between high and low density. When ecological conditions for evolutionary reversals are not satisfied, the population evolves toward a steady state of either low or high abundance, depending on the degree of competitive asymmetry and environmental parameters. A sharp evolutionary transition between evolutionary stasis and evolutionary reversals and cycling can occur in response to a smooth change in ecological parameters, and this may have implications for our understanding of size-abundance patterns.