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Keywords:

  • Character displacement;
  • directional selection;
  • disruptive selection;
  • divergent selection;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • resource polymorphism;
  • stabilizing selection

Resource competition has long been viewed as a major cause of phenotypic divergence within and between species. Theory predicts that divergence arises because natural selection favors individuals that are phenotypically dissimilar from their competitors. Yet, there are few conclusive tests of this key prediction. Drawing on data from both natural populations and a controlled experiment, this paper presents such a test in tadpoles of two species of spadefoot toads (Spea bombifrons and S. multiplicata). These two species show exaggerated divergence in trophic morphology where they are found together (mixed-species ponds) but not where each is found alone (pure-species ponds), suggesting that they have undergone ecological character displacement. Moreover, in pure-species ponds, both species exhibit resource polymorphism. Using body size as a proxy for fitness, we found that in pure-species ponds disruptive selection favors extreme trophic phenotypes in both species, suggesting that intraspecific competition for food promotes resource polymorphism. In mixed-species ponds, by contrast, we found that trophic morphology was subject to stabilizing selection in S. multiplicata and directional selection in S. bombifrons. A controlled experiment revealed that the more similar an S. multiplicata was to its S. bombifrons tankmate in resource use, the worse was its performance. These results indicate that S. multiplicata individuals that differ from S. bombifrons would be selectively favored in competition. Our data therefore demonstrate how resource competition between phenotypically similar individuals can drive divergence between them. Moreover, our results indicate that how competition contributes to such divergence may be influenced not only by the degree to which competitors overlap in resource use, but also by the abundance and quality of resources. Finally, our finding that competitively mediated disruptive selection may promote resource polymorphism has potentially important implications for understanding how populations evolve in response to heterospecific competitors. In particular, once a population evolves resource polymorphism, it may be more prone to undergo ecological character displacement.