1. For animal species inhabiting heterogeneous landscapes, the tortuosity of the dispersal path is a key determinant of the success in locating habitat patches. Path tortuosity within and beyond perceptual range must differ, and may be differently affected by intrinsic attributes of individuals and extrinsic environmental factors. Understanding how these factors interact to determine path tortuosity allows more accurate inference of successful movements between habitat patches.
2. We experimentally determined the effects of intrinsic (body mass and species identity) and extrinsic factors (distance to nearest forest fragment and matrix type) on the tortuosity of movements of three forest-dwelling didelphid marsupials, in a fragmented landscape of the Atlantic Forest, Brazil.
3. A total of 202 individuals were captured in forest fragments and released in three unsuitable matrix types (mowed pasture, abandoned pasture and manioc plantation), carrying spool-and-line devices.
4. Twenty-four models were formulated representing a priori hypotheses of major determinants of path tortuosity, grouped in three scenarios (only intrinsic factors, only extrinsic factors and models with combinations of both), and compared using a model selection approach. Models were tested separately for individuals released within the perceptual range of the species, and for individuals released beyond the perceptual range.
5. Matrix type strongly affected path tortuosity, with more obstructed matrix types hampering displacement of animals. Body mass was more important than species identity to determine path tortuosity, with larger animals moving more linearly. Increased distance to the fragment resulted in more tortuous paths, but actually reflects a threshold in perceptual range: linear paths within perceptual range, tortuous paths beyond.
6. The variables tested explained successfully path tortuosity, but only for animals released within the perceptual range. Other factors, such as wind intensity and direction of plantation rows, may be more important for individuals beyond their perceptual range.
7. Simplistic scenarios considering only intrinsic or extrinsic factors are inadequate to predict path tortuosity, and to infer dispersal success in heterogeneous landscapes. Perceptual range represents a fundamental threshold where the effects of matrix type, body mass and individual behaviour change drastically.