Niche evolution and adaptive radiation: Testing the order of trait divergence

D. D. Ackerly, D. W. Schwilk, C. O. Webb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

234 Scopus citations


In the course of an adaptive radiation, the evolution of niche parameters is of particular interest for understanding modes of speciation and the consequences for coexistence of related species within communities. We pose a general question: In the course of an evolutionary radiation, do traits related to within-community niche differences (α niche) evolve before or after differentiation of macrohabitat affinity or climatic tolerances (β niche)? Here we introduce a new test to address this question, based on a modification of the method of independent contrasts. The divergence order test (DOT) is based on the average age of the nodes on a tree, weighted by the absolute magnitude of the contrast at each node for a particular trait. The comparison of these weighted averages reveals whether large divergences for one trait have occurred earlier or later in the course of diversification, relative to a second trait; significance is determined by bootstrapping from maximum-likelihood ancestral state reconstructions. The method is applied to the evolution of Ceanothus, a woody plant group in California, in which co-occurring species exhibit significant differences in a key leaf trait (specific leaf area) associated with contrasting physiological and life history strategies. Co-occurring species differ more for this trait than expected under a null model of community assembly. This α niche difference evolved early in the divergence of two major subclades within Ceanothus, whereas climatic distributions (β niche traits) diversified later within each of the subclades. However, rapid evolution of climate parameters makes inferences of early divergence events highly uncertain, and differentiation of the β niche might have taken place throughout the evolution of the group, without leaving a clear phylogenetic signal. Similar patterns observed in several plant and animal groups suggest that early divergence of α niche traits might be a common feature of niche evolution in many adaptive radiations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S50-S61
Issue number7 SUPPL.
StatePublished - Jul 2006


  • Adaptive radiation
  • Ceanothus
  • Cerastes
  • Coast Range
  • Community assembly
  • Euceanothus
  • Habitat, niche conservatism
  • Phylogenetic comparative methods
  • Sierra Nevada
  • Specific leaf area
  • Trait divergence
  • Transverse Range


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