Leaving home ain't easy: non-local seed dispersal is only evolutionarily stable in highly unpredictable environments

Robin E. Snyder


It is widely understood that in the presence of asynchronous environmental variation, seeds disperse to escape disturbances, avoid crowding or colonize newly favourable habitat before a superior competitor can arrive. If seeds are dispersing for any of these reasons, it seems intuitive that they should travel far enough to reach conditions uncorrelated with their natal environment: why ‘escape in space’ only to land somewhere more or less like where they started? However, in this paper, I present a series of mathematical experiments which show that the evolutionarily stable mean dispersal distance remains well short of the spatial correlation length of the environmental variation, regardless of disturbance severity, coevolution with a superior competitor or the presence of a small fraction of seeds which travel well beyond the mean distance. Non-local dispersal arises only as part of a polymorphism that evolves when favourable conditions are fleeting. To the degree that non-local dispersal is a response to environmental variation, it appears to be a response to environmental unpredictability.

  • Received July 21, 2010.
  • Accepted August 26, 2010.
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