Evolutionary Biology Character Displacement
Greg Grether
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0104


Character displacement is the phenomenon of species at the same trophic level evolving through natural selection in response to each other because of some costly interaction. It can result in a geographic pattern in which closely related species differ more from each other phenotypically (e.g., in morphology, coloration, or behavior) in areas where their ranges overlap than where their ranges do not overlap. The term “character displacement” was originally used to refer to this geographic pattern, and some biologists continue to use it that way. However, since the 1970s, most researchers have used the term to refer to specific evolutionary processes. Two forms of character displacement, ecological character displacement (ECD) and reproductive character displacement (RCD), are widely recognized. A third form, agonistic character displacement (ACD), was proposed more recently and is gaining recognition. ECD is caused by indirect (exploitative) competition between species for common resources (e.g., food, nesting sites) and usually results in reduced resource overlap (i.e., niche divergence), although, in theory, exploitative competition can also cause niche convergence. RCD is caused by reproductive interference between species (e.g., courtship, mating, hybridization) and invariably reduces the frequency or cost of the interaction. RCD is synonymous with “reinforcement” when it increases the level of reproductive isolation between hybridizing species. RCD can result in patterns of divergence in easily observable traits, such as courtship signals and activity schedules, but it can also involve more subtle changes, such as evolved shifts in sensitivity to heterospecific seminal products. ACD occurs in two modes, divergent and convergent. Convergent ACD is the expected mode when interspecific resource defense is adaptive, while divergent ACD is the expected mode when interspecific resource defense is not adaptive. Convergent ACD is caused by competition between species for mates or other resources and can result in convergence in traits involved in competitor recognition (e.g., agonistic signals, neural templates) and enhancements in interspecific fighting ability (e.g., tactics, weaponry). Divergent ACD is caused by aggressive interference between species and reduces the frequency or cost of the interaction, through divergence in traits involved in competitor recognition or that affect the rate of interspecific encounters. Character displacement processes are widely considered to have a major role in structuring ecological communities, in the generation of phenotypic diversity, and in the evolution of barriers to reproduction between populations, culminating in speciation.

General Overviews

Pfennig and Pfennig 2012 is the most comprehensive and current book on character displacement and its myriad consequences. Schluter 2000 dispels the once common view that little or no evidence exists for ecological character displacement (ECD), while also identifying gaps in the evidence. Dhondt 2012 provides a succinct review of some well-supported cases of ECD. Grant and Grant 2014 chronicles a thoroughly documented case of ECD in action on a Galapagos island. Coyne and Orr 2004 reviews the tumultuous history of reinforcement theory and the empirical evidence that spurred theoreticians to figure out how to model it correctly. Nosil 2012 examines the roles of both reinforcement and ECD in speciation. Grether, et al. 2013 reviews agonistic character displacement (ACD) theory and the evidence available for this form of character displacement. See also Ecological Character Displacement, Reproductive Character Displacement, and Agonistic Character Displacement.

  • Coyne, J. A., and H. A. Orr. 2004. Speciation. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

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    Summarizes the “extraordinarily tortuous history” of the theory of reinforcement, the state of empirical research, and alternative explanations for enhanced prezygotic isolation in sympatry (chapter 10).

  • Dhondt, A. A. 2012. Interspecific competition in birds. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Summarizes key evidence for ECD in selected species, including, but not restricted to, birds (chapter 10).

  • Grant, P. R., and B. R. Grant. 2014. 40 years of evolution: Darwin’s finches on Daphne Major Island. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400851300E-mail Citation »

    Most studies of character displacement are based on comparing populations to make inferences about evolution past. This book synthesizes the results of a different approach: studying evolution as it unfolds. One product of this long-term effort is a fully documented case of ECD in the beak of the finch Geospiza fortis after the Island of Daphne Major was colonized by a larger finch, G. magnirostris (chapter 7).

  • Grether, G. F., C. N. Anderson, J. P. Drury, et al. 2013. The evolutionary consequences of interspecific aggression. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1289.1: 48–68.

    DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12082E-mail Citation »

    Compares ACD theory with alternative theoretical frameworks, discusses how to distinguish between character displacement processes empirically, and reviews the state of theory and empirical evidence for ACD, concluding that the evidence is substantial but further research is needed.

  • Nosil, P. 2012. Ecological speciation. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199587100.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Discusses various aspects of the hypothesis that reproductive isolation evolves in response to species interactions and emphasizes the difficulty of distinguishing reinforcement from ECD (chapters 3, 4, and 6).

  • Pfennig, D. W., and K. S. Pfennig. 2012. Evolution’s wedge: Competition and the origins of diversity. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520274181.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    The only book devoted entirely to character displacement and one of few advanced treatments to cover both reproductive character displacement and ECD. Character displacement is presented as a unifying principle that can be applied to many fundamental questions in biology.

  • Schluter, D. 2000. The ecology of adaptive radiation. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Places research on ECD into a historical context, reviews the underlying theory, and critically reviews the evidence from observational, predictive and experimental studies (chapter 6). Concludes that the evidence supports a role for ECD in evolutionary diversification, but further research is needed.

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