• dispersal;
  • mobility;
  • vagrancy;
  • migration;
  • genetic structure;
  • mark-release-recapture;
  • Lepidoptera;
  • butterfly;
  • meta-analysis

Dispersal has recently gained much attention because of its crucial role in the conservation and evolution of species facing major environmental changes such as habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, and their interactions. Butterflies have long been recognized as ideal model systems for the study of dispersal and a huge amount of data on their ability to disperse has been collected under various conditions. However, no single ‘best’ method seems to exist leading to the co-occurrence of various approaches to study butterfly mobility, and therefore a high heterogeneity among data on dispersal across this group. Accordingly, we here reviewed the knowledge accumulated on dispersal and mobility in butterflies, to detect general patterns. This meta-analysis specifically addressed two questions. Firstly, do the various methods provide a congruent picture of how dispersal ability is distributed across species? Secondly, is dispersal species-specific? Five sources of data were analysed: multisite mark-recapture experiments, genetic studies, experimental assessments, expert opinions, and transect surveys. We accounted for potential biases due to variation in genetic markers, sample sizes, spatial scales or the level of habitat fragmentation. We showed that the various dispersal estimates generally converged, and that the relative dispersal ability of species could reliably be predicted from their relative vagrancy (records of butterflies outside their normal habitat). Expert opinions gave much less reliable estimates of realized dispersal but instead reflected migration propensity of butterflies. Within-species comparisons showed that genetic estimates were relatively invariable, while other dispersal estimates were highly variable. This latter point questions dispersal as a species-specific, invariant trait.