Background – Plant dispersal is a critical factor driving ecological responses to global changes. Knowledge on the mechanisms of dispersal is rapidly advancing, but selective pressures responsible for the evolution of dispersal strategies remain elusive. Recent advances in animal movement ecology identified general strategies that may optimize efficiency in animal searches for food or habitat. Here we explore the potential for evolution of similar general movement strategies for plants.
Methods – We propose that seed dispersal in plants can be viewed as a strategic search for suitable habitat, where the probability of finding such locations has been optimized through evolution of appropriate dispersal kernels. Using model simulations, we demonstrate how dispersal strategies can optimize key dispersal trade-offs between finding habitat, avoiding kin competition, and colonizing new patches. These trade-offs depend strongly on the landscape, resulting in a tight link between optimal dispersal strategy and spatiotemporal habitat distribution.
Results – Our findings reveal that multi-scale seed dispersal strategies that combine a broad range of dispersal scales, including Lévy-like dispersal, are optimal across a wide range of dynamic and patchy landscapes. At the extremes, static and patchy landscapes select for dispersal strategies dominated by short distances, while uniform and highly unpredictable landscapes both select for dispersal strategies dominated by long distances.
Conclusions – By viewing plant seed dispersal as a strategic search for suitable habitat, we provide a reference framework for the analysis of plant dispersal data. Consideration of the entire dispersal kernel, including distances across the full range of scales, is key. This reference framework helps identify plant species’ dispersal strategies, the evolutionary forces determining these strategies and their ecological consequences, such as a potential mismatch between plant dispersal strategy and altered spatiotemporal habitat dynamics due to land use change. Our perspective opens up directions for future studies, including exploration of composite search behaviour and ‘informed searches’ in plant species with directed dispersal.