The ‘ecological opportunity’ hypothesis predicts that when interspecific competition or predation is reduced, populations will exhibit increases in phenotypic variance as a result of colonization and adaptation to vacant or underutilized ecological niches (i.e. character release). We assessed this hypothesis by examining morphological diversity within stickleback populations in 40 undisturbed lakes from six islands off the mid-coast of British Columbia, Canada. Because larger lakes with well-developed littoral and limnetic zones will have greater trophic niche diversity than smaller lakes with only littoral zones, we predicted a positive association between lake size and variation in trophic morphology. Conversely, reduced vertebrate predation in small bog lakes allows increased variance in defensive structures without costs to fitness. Consistent with both predictions, we observed that phenotypic variance in two traits that are involved in feeding (gape width and pectoral fin length) increased with lake size while variability in defence structures (lateral plate number and dorsal spine length) was inversely related to lake size. Moreover, increased variance in defence morphology was accentuated in populations with severe armour reduction (spine loss, decreased plate overlap), another strong indicator of reduced vertebrate predation. In the majority of cases, these patterns were repeatable among islands, independent from the geographical distance between lakes, and arose from a combination of high variance within each of the sexes and increases in sexual dimorphism. These findings suggest that character release can be trait-specific and reflect the combined effects of competition, predation and habitat heterogeneity. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 86, 297–308.