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Keywords:

  • Adaptation;
  • competition;
  • ecological communities;
  • environmental change;
  • evolutionary response

The role and importance of ecological interactions for evolutionary responses to environmental changes is to large extent unknown. Here it is shown that interspecific competition may slow down rates of adaptation substantially and fundamentally change patterns of adaptation to long-term environmental changes. In the model investigated here, species compete for resources distributed along an ecological niche space. Environmental change is represented by a slowly moving resource maximum and evolutionary responses of single species are compared with responses of coalitions of two and three competing species. In scenarios with two and three species, species that are favored by increasing resource availability increase in equilibrium population size whereas disfavored species decline in size. Increased competition makes it less favorable for individuals of a disfavored species to occupy a niche close to the maximum and reduces the selection pressure for tracking the moving resource distribution. Individual-based simulations and an analysis using adaptive dynamics show that the combination of weaker selection pressure and reduced population size reduces the evolutionary rate of the disfavored species considerably. If the resource landscape moves stochastically, weak evolutionary responses cause large fluctuations in population size and thereby large extinction risk for competing species, whereas a single species subject to the same environmental variability may track the resource maximum closely and maintain a much more stable population size. Other studies have shown that competitive interactions may amplify changes in mean population sizes due to environmental changes and thereby increase extinction risks. This study accentuates the harmful role of competitive interactions by illustrating that they may also decrease rates of adaptation. The slowdown in evolutionary rates caused by competition may also contribute to explain low rates of morphological change in spite of large environmental fluctuations found in fossil records.