Does character displacement initiate speciation? Evidence of reduced gene flow between populations experiencing divergent selection


Amber M. Rice, University of North Carolina Department of Biology, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.
Tel.: +46 18 471 6494; fax: +46 18 471 6484; e-mail:


Character displacement – trait evolution stemming from selection to lessen resource competition or reproductive interactions between species – has long been regarded as important in finalizing speciation. By contrast, its role in initiating speciation has received less attention. Yet because selection for character displacement should act only where species co-occur, individuals in sympatry will experience a different pattern of selection than conspecifics in allopatry. Such divergent selection might favour reduced gene flow between conspecific populations that have undergone character displacement and those that have not, thereby potentially triggering speciation. Here, we explore these ideas empirically by focusing on spadefoot toads, Spea multiplicata, which have undergone character displacement, and for which character displacement appears to cause post-mating isolation between populations that are in sympatry with a heterospecific and those that are in allopatry. Using mitochondrial sequence data and nuclear microsatellite genotypes, we specifically asked whether gene flow is reduced between populations in different selective environments relative to that between populations in the same selective environment. We found a slight, but statistically significant, reduction in gene flow between selective environments, suggesting that reproductive isolation, and potentially ecological speciation, might indeed evolve as an indirect consequence of character displacement. Generally, character displacement may play a largely underappreciated role in instigating speciation.