Abstract 1. Species would be expected to shift northwards in response to current climate warming, but many are failing to do so because of fragmentation of breeding habitats. Dispersal is important for colonisation and an individual-based spatially explicit model was developed to investigate impacts of habitat availability on the evolution of dispersal in expanding populations. Model output was compared with field data from the speckled wood butterfly Pararge aegeria, which currently is expanding its range in Britain.
2. During range expansion, models simulated positive linear relationships between dispersal and distance from the seed location. This pattern was observed regardless of quantity (100% to 10% habitat availability) or distribution (random vs. gradient distribution) of habitat, although higher dispersal evolved at expanding range margins in landscapes with greater quantity of habitat and in gradient landscapes. Increased dispersal was no longer evident in any landscape once populations had reached equilibrium; dispersal values returned to those of seed populations. However, in landscapes with the least quantity of habitat, reduced dispersal (below that of seed populations) was observed at equilibrium.
3. Evolutionary changes in adult flight morphology were examined in six populations of P. aegeria along a transect from the distribution core to an expanding range margin in England (spanning a latitudinal distance of >200 km). Empirical data were in agreement with model output and showed increased dispersal ability (larger and broader thoraxes, smaller abdomens, higher wing aspect ratios) with increasing distance from the distribution core. Increased dispersal ability was evident in populations from areas colonised >30 years previously, although dispersal changes were generally evident only in females.
4. Evolutionary increases in dispersal ability in expanding populations may help species track future climate changes and counteract impacts of habitat fragmentation by promoting colonisation. However, at the highest levels of habitat loss, increased dispersal was less evident during expansion and reduced dispersal was observed at equilibrium indicating that, for many species, continued habitat fragmentation is likely to outweigh any benefits from dispersal.