In This Article Dispersal

  • Introduction
  • Terminology
  • Historical Views
  • Methods and Approaches

Ecology Dispersal
Ran Nathan, David Shohami
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0033


Dispersal refers to movements of individuals or propagules that have potential consequences for gene flow within and between populations and across space; that is, dispersal is any movement from a source location (e.g., birth or breeding site) to another location where establishment and reproduction may occur. The term effective dispersal is used for events in which dispersal was followed by successful establishment and thus contributed to gene flow, as distinguished from the genuine dispersal events themselves (i.e., only the movement phase, regardless of subsequent establishment). Dispersal is a fundamental and widespread type of movement characterizing nearly all living organisms and playing a key role in determining many ecological and evolutionary processes. Consequently, the study of dispersal has a rich history, and the field is rapidly progressing today with the advancement of new technologies and theories. Yet, studies of dispersal have never formed a well-defined discipline, but rather developed as a topic relevant to biogeography, population genetics, and various subfields of ecology and evolutionary biology such as behavioral-, community-, landscape-, movement-, population-, and spatial-ecology. Overall, dispersal research has encompassed a diversity of methods developed in these multiple disciplines to address a wide range of scientific questions that can be classified into four interrelated categories: What are the general patterns of dispersal in space and time? What are the key proximate mechanisms underlying the generation of dispersal patterns? What are the ultimate drivers in the evolution of dispersal? and What are the implications of dispersal for individuals, populations, communities, and ecosystems?

General Overviews

The leading introductory ecology textbooks usually provide brief overviews on dispersal and may offer some starting points, but they merely touch on the subject. Despite the long history of research and the upsurge in publications dedicated to dispersal in the past twenty years, there is still a lack of textbooks dealing with the subject as a whole. Perhaps the only introductory textbook currently dedicated to dispersal is Cousens, et al. 2008, an excellent overview of plant seed dispersal. Clobert, et al. 2001 and Bullock, et al. 2002 are two edited volumes offering a good selection of chapters for students and researchers, emphasizing evolution and causes of dispersal in animals, and the ecology of dispersal, respectively. Clobert, et al. 2012 is the most recent addition to the available general overviews of dispersal. Several other edited books and Special Issues in international journals provide more in-depth overviews of specific dispersal subjects including, for example, plant-animal interactions (Dennis, et al. 2007), dispersal of small mammals (Stenseth and Lidicker 1992), long-distance dispersal (LDD) (Special issue: Long distance dispersal 2003, cited under Special Issues) and dispersal and migration (Sugden and Pennisi 2006, cited under Special Issues). Examples of general reviews in journal articles covering a fairly diverse array of topics are Bowler and Benton 2005 on dispersal in animals and Nathan and Muller-Landau 2000 on patterns, mechanisms and consequences of dispersal in plants.

  • Bowler, D. E., and T. G. Benton. 2005. Causes and consequences of animal dispersal strategies: Relating individual behaviour to spatial dynamics. Biological Reviews 80:205–225.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1464793104006645E-mail Citation »

    In-depth, comprehensive review on animal dispersal. Focuses on the three phases of the dispersal process, and on the evolutionary (ultimate) and ecological/behavioral (proximate) causes of dispersal in animals, with special emphasis on conditional dispersal (see Distance-Independent Spatial Patterns and Condition-Dependent Dispersal).

  • Bullock, James M., Robert E. Kenward, and Rosie S. Hails, eds. 2002. Dispersal ecology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edited book gives examples on methods for measuring dispersal and reviews dispersal and its ecological (mainly, population dynamic) consequences and role in a wide range of taxa. Lacking is a general introduction to dispersal, and some chapters may be too complicated for those seeking an introductory book.

  • Clobert, J., M. Baguette, T. G. Benton, and J. M. Bullock, eds. 2012. Dispersal ecology and evolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edited volume provides the most comprehensive coverage of current research on dispersal ecology and evolution. The book is divided into seven parts, each composed of five chapters: the first reviews the recent research, the second covers the theoretical background, and the three remaining chapters provide case studies (or mini reviews) of the topic in vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants.

  • Clobert, Jean, Etienne Danchin, André A. Dhondt, and James D. Nichols, eds. 2001. Dispersal. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edited volume excels in reviewing contemporary theory and empirical evidence for the evolution and causes of dispersal, mainly from animals, though some chapters may not be suitable as a first entry-level introduction to the topics. Also offers some contributions on the consequences of dispersal.

  • Cousens, Roger, Clavin Dytham, and Richard Law. 2008. Dispersal in plants: A population perspective. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent, though nonexhaustive, introduction to seed dispersal in plants, providing concise, well-explained, systematic chapters on dispersal evolution, mechanisms, spatial patterns, and population consequences. Suitable for entry-level. Important topics not covered by this book are the use of genetic methods for measuring dispersal and the genetic consequences of dispersal.

  • Dennis, Andrew J., Eugene W. Schupp, Ronda J. Green, and David A. Westcott. 2007. Seed dispersal: Theory and its application in a changing world. Presentations given at the Fourth International Symposium/Workshop on Frugivores and Seed Dispersal held in Brisbane, Australia, 2005. Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

    DOI: 10.1079/9781845931650.0000E-mail Citation »

    This is the last volume in a series of edited volumes resulting from four successive conferences (in approximately five-year intervals) on seed dispersal and frugivory. Books in this series have provided a compilation of in-depth studies by leading researchers on the role of frugivory in seed dispersal, merging general overviews with specific examples from different species and systems. This last volume also includes a useful glossary of seed dispersal terms.

  • Nathan, R., and H. C. Muller-Landau. 2000. Spatial patterns of seed dispersal, their determinants and consequences for recruitment. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 15:278–285.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0169-5347(00)01874-7E-mail Citation »

    A more in-depth review, rather than entry-level introduction, of some key concepts, methods and models of the seed dispersal process. Highlighted are the complexity of multiple mechanisms determining spatial patterns of dispersal, and postdispersal processes shaping the consequences of dispersal for populations.

  • Stenseth, Nils Chr., and William Z. Lidicker Jr., eds. 1992. Animal dispersal: Small mammals as a model. London: Chapman & Hall.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is one of several edited books dedicated to animal dispersal. Parts one and two and the appendices are helpful introductions to dispersal in animals for students and researchers. Other parts are specific examples for more advanced researchers.

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