Biologists have long known that closely related species are often phenotypically different where they occur together, but are indistinguishable where they occur alone. The causes of such character displacement are controversial, however. We used polyphenic spadefoot toad tadpoles (Spea bombifrons and S. multiplicata) to test the hypothesis that character displacement evolves to minimize competition for food. We also sought to evaluate the role of phenotypic plasticity in the mediation of competitive interactions between these species. Depending on their diet, individuals of both species develop into either a small-headed omnivore morph, which feeds mostly on detritus, or a large-headed carnivore morph, which specializes on shrimp. Laboratory experiments and surveys of natural ponds revealed that the two species were more dissimilar in their tendency to produce carnivores when they occurred together than when they occurred alone. This divergence in carnivore production was expressed as both character displacement (where S. multiplicata's propensity to produce carnivores was lower in sympatry than in allopatry) and as phenotypic plasticity (where S. multiplicata facultatively enhanced carnivore production in S. bombifrons, and S. bombifrons facultatively suppressed carnivore production in S. multiplicata). In separate experiments, we established that S. bombifrons (the species for which carnivore production was enhanced) was the superior competitor for shrimp. Conversely, S. multiplicata (the species for which carnivore production was suppressed and omnivore production enhanced) was the superior competitor for detritus. These results therefore demonstrate that selection to minimize competition for food can cause character displacement. They also suggest that both character displacement and phenotypic plasticity may mediate competitive interactions between species.
Corresponding Editor: T. Mousseau