Ecological opportunity – through entry into a new environment, the origin of a key innovation or extinction of antagonists – is widely thought to link ecological population dynamics to evolutionary diversification. The population-level processes arising from ecological opportunity are well documented under the concept of ecological release. However, there is little consensus as to how these processes promote phenotypic diversification, rapid speciation and adaptive radiation. We propose that ecological opportunity could promote adaptive radiation by generating specific changes to the selective regimes acting on natural populations, both by relaxing effective stabilizing selection and by creating conditions that ultimately generate diversifying selection. We assess theoretical and empirical evidence for these effects of ecological opportunity and review emerging phylogenetic approaches that attempt to detect the signature of ecological opportunity across geological time. Finally, we evaluate the evidence for the evolutionary effects of ecological opportunity in the diversification of Caribbean Anolis lizards. Some of the processes that could link ecological opportunity to adaptive radiation are well documented, but others remain unsupported. We suggest that more study is required to characterize the form of natural selection acting on natural populations and to better describe the relationship between ecological opportunity and speciation rates.