• Adaptive dynamics;
  • dispersal evolution;
  • evolutionary branching;
  • evolutionarily stable strategy;
  • habitat heterogeneity;
  • kin selection

Numerous models have been designed to understand how dispersal ability evolves when organisms live in a fragmented landscape. Most of them predict a single dispersal rate at evolutionary equilibrium, and when diversification of dispersal rates has been predicted, it occurs as a response to perturbation or environmental fluctuation regimes. Yet abundant variation in dispersal ability is observed in natural populations and communities, even in relatively stable environments. We show that this diversification can operate in a simple island model without temporal variability: disruptive selection on dispersal occurs when the environment consists of many small and few large patches, a common feature in natural spatial systems. This heterogeneity in patch size results in a high variability in the number of related patch mates by individual, which, in turn, triggers disruptive selection through a high per capita variance of inclusive fitness. Our study provides a likely, parsimonious and testable explanation for the diversity of dispersal rates encountered in nature. It also suggests that biological conservation policies aiming at preserving ecological communities should strive to keep the distribution of patch size sufficiently asymmetric and variable.