Aim The aim of this study is to answer the questions: (1) do small organisms disperse farther than large, or vice versa; and (2) does the observed pattern differ for passive and active dispersers? These questions are central to several themes in biogeography (including microbial biogeography), macroecology, metacommunity ecology and conservation biology.
Location The meta-analysis was conducted using published data collected worldwide.
Methods We collected and analysed 795 data values in the peer-reviewed literature for direct observations of both maximal dispersal distance and mass of the dispersing organisms (e.g. seeds, not trees). Analysed taxa ranged in size from bacteria to whales. We applied macroecology analyses based on null models (using Monte Carlo randomizations) to test patterns relative to specific hypotheses.
Results Collected dispersal distance and mass data spanned 9 and 21 orders of magnitude, respectively. Active dispersers dispersed significantly farther (P < 0.001) and were significantly greater in mass (P < 0.001) than passive dispersers. Overall, size matters: larger active dispersers attained greater maximum observed dispersal distances than smaller active dispersers. In contrast, passive-disperser distances were random with respect to propagule mass, but not uniformly random, in part due to sparse data available for tiny propagules.
Conclusions Size is important to maximal dispersal distance for active dispersers, but not for passive dispersers. Claims that microbes disperse widely cannot be tested by current data based on direct observations of dispersal: indirect approaches will need to be applied. Distance–mass relationships should contribute to a resolution of neutral and niche-based metacommunity theories by helping scale expectations for dispersal limitation. Also, distance–mass relationships should inform analyses of latitudinal species richness and conservation biology topics such as fragmentation, umbrella species and taxonomic homogenization.