Habitat choice stabilizes metapopulation dynamics by enabling ecological specialization.

26 November 2018

Mortier, Frederik; Jacob, Staffan; Vandegehuchte, Martijn; Bonte, Dries

Dispersal is a key trait responsible for the spread of individuals and genes among local populations, thereby generating eco-evolutionary interactions. Especially in heterogeneous metapopulations, a tight coupling between dispersal, population dynamics and the evolution of local adaptation is expected. In this respect, dispersal should counteract ecological specialization by redistributing locally selected phenotypes (i.e. migration load). Habitat choice following an informed dispersal decision, however, can facilitate the evolution of ecological specialization. How such informed decisions influence metapopulation size and variability is yet to be determined.
By means of individual-based modelling, we demonstrate that informed decisions about both departure and settlement decouple the evolution of dispersal and that of generalism, selecting for highly dispersive specialists. Choice at settlement is based on information from the entire dispersal range, and therefore decouples dispersal from ecological specialization more effectively than choice at departure, which is only based on local information. Additionally, habitat choice at departure and settlement reduces local and metapopulation variability because of the maintenance of ecological specialization at all levels of dispersal propensity. Our study illustrates the important role of habitat choice for dynamics of spatially structured populations and thus emphasizes the importance of considering that dispersal is often informed.