Where Two Are Fighting, the Third Wins: Stronger Selection Facilitates Greater Polymorphism in Traits Conferring Competition-Dispersal Tradeoffs

Adam Lampert, Tsvi Tlusty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A major conundrum in evolution is that, despite natural selection, polymorphism is still omnipresent in nature: Numerous species exhibit multiple morphs, namely several abundant values of an important trait. Polymorphism is particularly prevalent in asymmetric traits, which are beneficial to their carrier in disruptive competitive interference but at the same time bear disadvantages in other aspects, such as greater mortality or lower fecundity. Here we focus on asymmetric traits in which a better competitor disperses fewer offspring in the absence of competition. We report a general pattern in which polymorphic populations emerge when disruptive selection increases: The stronger the selection, the greater the number of morphs that evolve. This pattern is general and is insensitive to the form of the fitness function. The pattern is somewhat counterintuitive since directional selection is excepted to sharpen the trait distribution and thereby reduce its diversity (but note that similar patterns were suggested in studies that demonstrated increased biodiversity as local selection increases in ecological communities). We explain the underlying mechanism in which stronger selection drives the population towards more competitive values of the trait, which in turn reduces the population density, thereby enabling lesser competitors to stably persist with reduced need to directly compete. Thus, we believe that the pattern is more general and may apply to asymmetric traits more broadly. This robust pattern suggests a comparative, unified explanation to a variety of polymorphic traits in nature.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere0147970
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Jon Wilkins, Tamar Fridlander, Rami Pugatch, Gyuri Barabás and another (anonymous) reviewer for helpful comments on the manuscript. A.L. is supported by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University. T.T. has been partly supported by the Institute for Basic Science (IBS-R020-D1) and the Simons Center for Systems Biology at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Lampert, Tlusty.This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


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