1. Dispersal ability of a species is a key ecological characteristic, affecting a range of processes from adaptation, community dynamics and genetic structure, to distribution and range size. It is determined by both intrinsic species traits and extrinsic landscape-related properties.
2. Using butterflies as a model system, the following questions were addressed: (i) given similar extrinsic factors, which intrinsic species trait(s) explain dispersal ability? (ii) can one of these traits be used as a proxy for dispersal ability? (iii) the effect of interactions between the traits, and phylogenetic relatedness, on dispersal ability.
3. Four data sets, using different measures of dispersal, were compiled from published literature. The first data set uses mean dispersal distances from capture–mark–recapture studies, and the other three use mobility indices. Data for six traits that can potentially affect dispersal ability were collected: wingspan, larval host plant specificity, adult habitat specificity, mate location strategy, voltinism and flight period duration. Each data set was subjected to both unifactorial, and multifactorial, phylogenetically controlled analyses.
4. Among the factors considered, wingspan was the most important determinant of dispersal ability, although the predictive powers of regression models were low. Voltinism and flight period duration also affect dispersal ability, especially in case of temperate species. Interactions between the factors did not affect dispersal ability, and phylogenetic relatedness was significant in one data set.
5. While using wingspan as the only proxy for dispersal ability maybe problematic, it is usually the only easily accessible species-specific trait for a large number of species. It can thus be a satisfactory proxy when carefully interpreted, especially for analyses involving many species from all across the world.