- 1We investigated the causes of natal dispersal in four Spanish areas where 35 breeding groups of the polygynous great bustard Otis tarda were monitored intensively. A total of 392 juveniles were radio-tracked between 1991 and 2006 by ground and via aeroplane to avoid potential biases derived from the non-detection of long-distance dispersers.
- 2We explored 10 explanatory variables that were related to individual phenotypic features, habitat and conspecific traits in terms of group size and breeding performance, and spatial distribution of available breeding groups. Probability of group change and natal dispersal distances were investigated separately through multifactorial analyses.
- 3Natal dispersal occurred in 47·8% of the birds and median natal dispersal distance of dispersers was 18·1 km (range 4·97–178·42 km). Sex largely determined the dispersal probability, with 75·6% of males being dispersers and 80·0% of females being philopatric, in contrast to the general pattern of female-biased dispersal found in most avian species.
- 4Both the frequency of natal dispersal and dispersal distances were affected by the spatial distribution of breeding groups. More isolated groups showed a higher proportion of philopatric individuals, the effect being more evident in males than in females. This implies a reduction in gene flow in fragmented populations, as most genetic exchange is achieved through male dispersal. Additionally, dispersers hatched in more isolated groups tended to exhibit longer dispersal distances, which increases the associated energetic costs and mortality risks.
- 5The dispersal decision was influenced by the number of conspecifics in the natal group. The individual probability of natal dispersal was related inversely to the size of the natal group, which supports the balanced dispersal model and the conspecific attraction hypothesis.
- 6Overall, our results provide a good example of phenotypic plasticity and reinforce the current view that dispersal is an evolutionary complex trait conditioned by the interaction of individual, social and environmental causes that vary between individuals and populations.