Dispersal evolves as an adaptive mechanism to optimize individual fitness across the landscape. Specifically, dispersal represents a mechanism to escape fitness costs resulting from changes in environmental conditions. Decades of empirical work suggest that individuals use local habitat cues to make movement decisions, but theory predicts that dispersal can also evolve as a fixed trait, independent of local conditions, in environments characterized by a history of stochastic spatiotemporal variation. Until now, however, both conditional and fixed models of dispersal evolution have primarily been evaluated using emigration data (stay vs. leave), and not dispersal distances: a more comprehensive measure of dispersal. Our goal was to test whether conditional or fixed models of dispersal evolution predict variation in dispersal distance in the stream salamander Gyrinophilus porphyriticus. We quantified variation in habitat conditions using measures of salamander performance from 4 yr of spatially explicit, capture–mark–recapture (CMR) data across three headwater streams in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in central New Hampshire, USA. We used body condition as an index of local habitat quality that individuals may use to make dispersal decisions, and survival probability estimated from multistate CMR models as an index of mortality risk resulting from the long-term history of environmental variation. We found that dispersal distances increased with declining survival probability, indicating that salamanders disperse further in risky environments. Dispersal distances were unrelated to spatial variation in body condition, suggesting that salamanders do not base dispersal distance decisions on local habitat quality. Our study provides the first empirical support for fixed models of dispersal evolution, which predict that dispersal evolves in response to a history of spatiotemporal environmental variation, rather than as a conditional response to current habitat conditions. More broadly, this study underscores the value of assessing alternative scales of environmental variation to gain a more complete and balanced understanding of dispersal evolution.
- body condition
- capture–mark–recapture methods
- conditional dispersal
- dispersal distance
- environmental variation