Indexed on: 12 Nov '15Published on: 12 Nov '15Published in: PeerJ
Metapopulation dynamics are jointly regulated by local and spatial factors. These factors may affect the dynamics of local populations and of the entire metapopulation differently. Previous studies have shown that dispersal can stabilize local populations; however, as dispersal also tends to increase spatial synchrony, its net effect on metapopulation stability has been controversial. Here we present a simple metapopulation model to study how dispersal, in interaction with other spatial and local processes, affects the temporal variability of metapopulations in a stochastic environment. Our results show that in homogeneous metapopulations, the local stabilizing and spatial synchronizing effects of dispersal cancel each other out, such that dispersal has no effect on metapopulation variability. This result is robust to moderate heterogeneities in local and spatial parameters. When local and spatial dynamics exhibit high heterogeneities, however, dispersal can either stabilize or destabilize metapopulation dynamics through various mechanisms. Our findings have important theoretical and practical implications. We show that dispersal functions as a form of spatial intraspecific mutualism in metapopulation dynamics and that its effect on metapopulation stability is opposite to that of interspecific competition on local community stability. Our results also suggest that conservation corridors should be designed with appreciation of spatial heterogeneities in population dynamics in order to maximize metapopulation stability.