In fragmented landscapes, small populations frequently go extinct and new ones are established with poorly understood consequences for genetic diversity and evolution of life history traits. Here, we apply functional genomic tools to an ecological model system, the well-studied metapopulation of the Glanville fritillary butterfly. We investigate how dispersal and colonization select upon existing genetic variation affecting life history traits by comparing common-garden reared 2-day adult females from new populations with those from established older populations. New-population females had higher expression of abdomen genes involved in egg provisioning and thorax genes involved in the maintenance of flight muscle proteins. Physiological studies confirmed that new-population butterflies have accelerated egg maturation, apparently regulated by higher juvenile hormone titer and angiotensin converting enzyme mRNA, as well as enhanced flight metabolism. Gene expression varied between allelic forms of two metabolic genes (Pgi and Sdhd), which themselves were associated with differences in flight metabolic rate, population age and population growth rate. These results identify likely molecular mechanisms underpinning life history variation that is maintained by extinction–colonization dynamics in metapopulations.