Functional complexity can mitigate performance trade-offs

Roi Holzman*, David C. Collar, Rita S. Mehta, Peter C. Wainwright

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Trade-offs are believed to impose major constraints on adaptive evolution, and they arise when modification of a trait improves one aspect of performance but incurs a cost in another. Here we show that performance costs that result from competing demands on one trait can be mitigated by compensatory changes in other traits, so long as performance has a complex basis. Numerical simulations indicate that increases in the number of traits that determine performance decrease the strength of performance trade-offs. In centrarchid fishes, multiple traits underlie suction feeding performance, and experimental data and hydrodynamic modeling show that combinations of traits evolve to increase the ability to feed on attached prey while mitigating costs to performance on evasive prey. Diet data for centrarchid species reveal a weak trade-off between these prey types, corroborating the results based on hydrodynamic modeling and suggesting that complexity in the functional basis of suction feeding performance enhances trophic diversification. Complexity may thus permit the evolution of combinations of high-performance behaviors that appear to violate underlying trade-offs, such as the ability to exert high suction forces with large gape. This phenomenon may promote morphological, functional, and ecological diversification in the face of the myriad selective demands organisms encounter.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E69-E83
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Functional morphology
  • Niche breadth
  • Performance
  • Suction feeding


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