Aim: Globally, the geographical distributions of species are dynamic and strongly influenced by dispersal. At the same time, range dynamics feed back and may select for increased dispersal at expanding range fronts. This interplay between macroecological and evolutionary dynamics happens almost universally across environmental gradients and such gradients can have a direct impact on the fitness of organisms due to the match or mismatch between an individual’s environmental optimum and the current conditions along the gradient. Importantly, gradients also provide individuals with information on environmental changes because dispersing individuals may sense whether environmental conditions improve or deteriorate. However, the ability of organisms to use this information on the environment and to subsequently adjust dispersal decisions plastically, that is, deciding to further disperse into the gradient or not, has been largely ignored and the macroecological consequences remain unclear. We here aim to demonstrate the impact of informed dispersal on the eco-evolutionary dynamics of ranges.
Location: Laboratory and theoretical.
Methods: We used individual-based simulations and controlled experiments in replicated microcosm landscapes. Range expansions of the protist model organism Tetrahymena were tracked using video recording and analysis.
Results: We show that information on environmental gradients had a severe impact on range dynamics and inverted the spatial distribution of population densities in comparison with controls where this information was not provided. Additionally, the use of information on gradients prevented evolutionary changes in dispersal rates and an acceleration of range expansion.
Main conclusions: We demonstrate the strong impact of informed dispersal and subsequent behavioural changes on range dynamics in environmental gradients. More generally, our findings highlight the importance of informed dispersal for spatial ecological and evolutionary dynamics.