Competitive exclusion: phylogeography’s ‘elephant in the room’?



Jonathan M. Waters, Fax: +64 3 4797584; E-mail:


Phylogeographic and evolutionary research programmes have successfully elucidated compelling genetic signatures of earth history. Particularly influential achievements include the demonstration of postglacial recolonization patterns for high-latitude taxa and phylogenetic demonstration of the ‘progression rule’ along oceanic island chains such as Hawaii. While both of these major biogeographic patterns clearly rely on rapid dispersal over long distances, their phylogeographic detection also apparently relies on the competitive exclusion of secondary dispersers. Such exclusion could occur either between or within species and might reflect fitness differences between lineages or, alternatively, neutral demographic processes (e.g. ‘high-density blocking’). Regardless, such spatial genetic patterns would be rapidly eroded were it not for the failure of subsequent dispersers to contribute genetically to newly colonized populations. In addition to its role in revealing colonization patterns, competitive exclusion may also explain the maintenance of historic phylogeographic disjunctions long after the original physical barriers to dispersal have ceased to exist. Additionally, some of the most persuasive evidence of competitive exclusion comes from studies of anthropogenic extinction, where surviving lineages have subsequently expanded their ranges, apparently benefitting from the demise of their prehistoric sisters. Broadly, these biogeographic paradigms are united by the ‘disconnect’ between dispersal and colonization success, the latter being heavily influenced by inter- and intraspecific competition. Despite its apparent importance, such exclusion (especially within species) has received virtually no attention in the phylogeographic literature. Future studies should aim to test directly for the role of competitive exclusion in constraining the biogeography of highly dispersive taxa.