Intraspecific genetic variation and competition interact to influence niche expansion


Theory and empirical evidence show that intraspecific competition can drive selection favouring the use of novel resources (i.e. niche expansion). The evolutionary response to such selection depends on genetic variation for resource use. However, while genetic variation might facilitate niche expansion, genetically diverse groups may also experience weaker competition, reducing density-dependent selection on resource use. Therefore, genetic variation for fitness on different resources could directly facilitate, or indirectly retard, niche expansion. To test these alternatives, we factorially manipulated both the degree of genetic variation and population density in flour beetles (Tribolium castaneum) exposed to both novel and familiar food resources. Using stable carbon isotope analysis, we measured temporal change and individual variation in beetle diet across eight generations. Intraspecific competition and genetic variation acted on different components of niche evolution: competition facilitated niche expansion, while genetic variation increased individual variation in niche use. In addition, genetic variation and competition together facilitated niche expansion, but all these impacts were temporally variable. Thus, we show that the interaction between genetic variation and competition can also determine niche evolution at different time scales.

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