Unravelling the mechanisms underlying variation in life history traits is of fundamental importance for our understanding of adaptation by natural selection. While progress has been made in mapping fitness-related phenotypes to genotypes, mainly in a handful of model organisms, functional genomic studies of life history adaptations are still in their infancy. In particular, despite a few notable exceptions, the genomic basis of life history variation in natural populations remains poorly understood. This is especially true for the genetic underpinnings of life history phenotypes subject to diversifying selection driven by ecological dynamics in patchy environments—as opposed to adaptations involving strong directional selection owing to major environmental changes, such as latitudinal gradients, extreme climatic events or transitions from salt to freshwater. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Wheat et al. (2011) now make a significant leap forward by applying the tools of functional genomics to dispersal-related life history variation in a butterfly metapopulation. Using a combination of microarrays, quantitative PCR and physiological measurements, the authors uncover several metabolic and endocrine factors that likely contribute to the observed life history phenotypes. By identifying molecular candidate mechanisms of fitness variation maintained by dispersal dynamics in a heterogeneous environment, they also begin to address fascinating interactions between the levels of physiology, ecology and evolution.