A species's niche width reflects a balance between the diversifying effects of intraspecific competition and the constraining effects of interspecific competition. This balance shifts when a species from a competitive environment invades a depauperate habitat where interspecific competition is reduced. The resulting ecological release permits population niche expansion, via increased individual niche widths and/or increased among-individual variation. We report an experimental test of the theory of ecological release in three-spine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). We factorially manipulated the presence or absence of two interspecific competitors: juvenile cut-throat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki) and prickly sculpin (Cottus asper). Consistent with the classic niche variation hypothesis, release from trout competition increased stickleback population niche width via increased among-individual variation, while individual niche widths remained unchanged. In contrast, release from sculpin competition had no effect on population niche width, because increased individual niche widths were offset by decreased between-individual variation. Our results confirm that ecological release from interspecific competition can lead to increases in niche width, and that these changes can occur on behavioural time scales. Importantly, we find that changes in population niche width are decoupled from changes in the niche widths of individuals within the population.