Simple settlement decisions explain common dispersal patterns in territorial species

James J. Gilroy, Julie L. Lockwood

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Dispersal is one of the least-understood aspects of animal behaviour. For example, little is known of the mechanisms that determine how individuals express different dispersal behaviours in different circumstances. Uncovering these mechanisms is important for our understanding of spatial population dynamics.

Using agent-based simulations, we examine how simple decision rules generate individual-level dispersal plasticity, and how this can influence population-scale dispersal dynamics. We model a territorial, monogamous population inhabiting a completely homogeneous environment. Dispersal variability therefore emerges solely as a result of between-individual interactions (competition, settlement, reproduction), which are governed by simple decision-making algorithms.

We show that complex dispersal dynamics, including sex biases and strong density dependence, emerge naturally from simple rule-based behaviours. Dispersal is particularly sensitive to the inclusion of mate availability as a criterion for settlement: if neither sex evaluates mate availability, dispersal distances tend to decline at low densities, leading to a strong Allee effect from reduced pairing success. If one sex evaluates mate availability (females), Allee effects are largely avoided, but female-biased dispersal generates increasingly male-biased adult sex ratios at low densities. Sex biases are eliminated if both sexes evaluate mate availability, but population growth rates tend to be reduced due to survival costs and reduced pairing success.

Our models suggest that simple decision mechanisms can explain several dynamic patterns that are commonly observed among territorial species. Importantly, these patterns emerge in the absence of environmental heterogeneity or between-individual variation in dispersal phenotypes, two conditions that are often invoked to explain dispersal heterogeneity in nature. This has implications for studies seeking to examine the causes of dispersal variability in wild populations, suggesting that observed patterns could be largely driven by the social and demographic conditions experienced by sampled individuals.

Further insights could be gained by examining how selection operates on decision rules in different life-history and environmental circumstances, and how this might interact with selection on other demographic traits. Uncovering the decision-rules used during settlement should be a priority for those wishing to understand and predict dispersal patterns in nature.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1182–1190
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number5
Early online date13 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2016


  • Animal dispersal
  • settlement criteria
  • spatial population dynamics
  • Allee effects
  • movement ecology
  • dispersal kernel
  • density dependence
  • mate finding

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