Character Displacement

In the realm of evolution, character displacement describes how closely related species differentiate to reduce competition within shared environments. This phenomenon, seen in diverse species like Galápagos finches, emerges chiefly from the challenges of resource competition and niche definition.


Character displacement is a process by which two closely related species, when they coexist in the same environment, evolve differences that reduce competition between them. This allows them to coexist more harmoniously by reducing resource overlap.


  • First observed by evolutionary biologists in the mid-20th century.
  • Originates from the principles of competitive exclusion and niche differentiation.

Types of Character Displacement

  • Ecological Character Displacement: Involves changes in a species’ ecological traits, like feeding or habitat preference.
  • Reproductive Character Displacement: Refers to the differentiation of mating signals, leading to reduced hybridization.


  • Begins with competitive exclusion, where two species with identical needs compete for a limiting resource.
  • One species typically outcompetes the other unless they differentiate in some way.
  • Over time, natural selection favors those individuals in each species that are least like the competing species in resource use.


  • Frequently cited evidence comes from studies on Galápagos finches. Different species with overlapping distributions tend to have more distinct beak sizes than those that do not overlap.
  • Another example involves certain species of salamanders in the Appalachian Mountains, where competing species show differences in body size when they coexist compared to when they are isolated.


  • Provides insight into the mechanisms behind biodiversity and species coexistence.
  • Explains the coexistence of species with similar ecological requirements in the same habitat.


  • Not all differences between coexisting species are a result of character displacement. Other processes, such as sexual selection or habitat preference, could lead to similar outcomes.
  • Demonstrating character displacement involves ruling out other possible explanations for observed differences.

Factors Influencing Character Displacement

  • Strength of Competition: The greater the overlap in resource use, the stronger the selection for differentiation.
  • Genetic Variability: Species with more genetic diversity have a greater capacity for evolutionary change.
  • Environmental Factors: The presence of other species or changes in the environment can mediate or influence the direction of character displacement.

Relationship to Other Concepts

  • Niche Partitioning: This is a broader concept where species divide resources to avoid competition, of which character displacement is a subtype.
  • Adaptive Radiation: An evolutionary process where a single ancestor rapidly diversifies into a variety of forms. Character displacement can be a driving factor in this if new forms reduce competition with existing ones.