Can natural selection maintain long-distance dispersal? Insight from a stream salamander system

Winsor H. Lowe, Mark A. McPeek

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23 Scopus citations


Dispersal distributions are often characterized by many individuals that stay close to their origin and large variation in the distances moved by those that leave. This variation in dispersal distance can strongly influence demographic, ecological, and evolutionary processes. However, a lack of data on the fitness and phenotype of individual dispersers has impeded research on the role of natural selection in maintaining variation in dispersal distance. Six years of spatially explicit capture-mark-recapture data showed that survival increased with dispersal distance in the stream salamander Gyrinophilus porphyriticus. To understand the evolutionary implications of this fitness response, we tested whether variation in dispersal distance has a phenotypic basis. We used photographs of marked individuals to measure head, trunk, and leg morphology. We then tested whether dispersal distances over the six-year study period were predicted by these traits. Dispersal distance was significantly related to leg morphology: individuals with relatively long forelimbs and short hindlimbs dispersed the farthest. These results support the hypothesis that positive fitness consequences maintain phenotypes enabling long-distance dispersal. More broadly, they suggest that natural selection can promote variation in dispersal distance and associated phenotypes, offering an alternative to the view that dispersal distance is driven by stochastic or landscape-specific mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-24
Number of pages14
JournalEvolutionary Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Dispersal
  • Fitness
  • Morphology
  • Phenotype
  • Selection
  • Spatial dynamics


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