• Divergent evolution;
  • ecological character displacement;
  • genetic assimilation;
  • local adaptation;
  • loss of plasticity;
  • phenotypic plasticity

Character displacement occurs when two species compete, and those individuals most dissimilar from the average resource-use phenotypes of the other species are selectively favored. Few studies have explored the sequence of events by which such divergence comes about. We addressed this issue by studying two species of spadefoot toads that have undergone ecological character displacement with each other. Previous research revealed that phenotypic shifts between sympatric and allopatric populations of one species, Spea multiplicata, reflect a condition-dependent maternal effect. Here, we show that analogous shifts in the other species, S. bombifrons, cannot similarly be explained by such a maternal effect, and that these shifts instead appear to be underlain by allelic differences. We hypothesize that these two species have evolved different mechanisms of character displacement because they differ in duration in sympatry. Specifically, because they occur at the edge of a range expansion, populations of S. bombifrons have been exposed to S. multiplicata for a longer period. Consequently, S. bombifrons have likely had more time to accumulate genetic changes that promote character displacement. Generally, character displacement may often progress through an initial phase in which trait differences are environmentally induced to one in which they are constitutively expressed.