One of the central questions in evolutionary biology concerns the dynamics of adaptation and diversification. This issue can be addressed experimentally if replicate populations adapting to identical environments can be investigated in detail. We have studied 501 such replicas using digital organisms adapting to at least two fundamentally different functional niches (survival strategies) present in the same environment: one in which fast replication is the way to live, and another where exploitation of the environment's complexity leads to complex organisms with longer life spans and smaller replication rates. While these two modes of survival are closely analogous to those expected to emerge in so-called r and K selection scenarios respectively, the bifurcation of evolutionary histories according to these functional niches occurs in identical environments, under identical selective pressures. We find that the branching occurs early, and leads to drastic phenotypic differences (in fitness, sequence length, and gestation time) that are permanent and irreversible. This study confirms an earlier experimental effort using microorganisms, in that diversification can be understood at least in part in terms of bifurcations on saddle points leading to peak shifts, as in the picture drawn by Sewall Wright.

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Author notes

Present address: Keck Graduate Institute for Applied Life Sciences, 535 Watson Drive, Claremont, CA 91711.