Effect of Dispersal at Range Edges on the Structure of Species Ranges

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Range edges are of particular interest to ecology because they hold key insights into the limits of the realized niche and associated population dynamics. A recent feature of Oikos summarized the state of the art on range edge ecology. While the typical question is what causes range edges, another important question is how range edges influence the distribution of abundances across a species geographic range when dispersal is present. We used a single species population dynamics model on a coupled-lattice to determine the effects of dispersal on peripheral populations as compared to populations at the core of the range. In the absence of resource gradients, the reduced neighborhood and thus lower connectivity or higher isolation among populations at the range edge alone led to significantly lower population sizes in the periphery of the range than in the core. Lower population sizes mean higher extinction risks and lower adaptability at the range edge, which could inhibit or slow range expansions, and thus effectively stabilize range edges. The strength of this effect depended on the potential population growth rate and the maximum dispersal distance. Lower potential population growth rates led to a stronger effect of dispersal resulting in a higher difference in population sizes between the two areas. The differential effect of dispersal on population sizes at the core and periphery of the range in the absence of resource gradients implies that traditional, habitat-based distribution models could result in misleading conclusions about the habitat quality in the periphery. Lower population sizes at the periphery are also relevant to conservation, because habitat removal not only eliminates populations but also creates new edges. Populations bordering these new edges may experience declines, due to their increased isolation.