Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Dispersal distance is driven by habitat availability and reproductive success in Northern Great Plains piping plovers

December 11, 2021


Dispersal is a critical life history strategy that has important conservation implications, particularly for at-risk species with active recovery efforts and migratory species. Both natal and breeding dispersal are driven by numerous selection pressures, including conspecific competition, individual characteristics, reproductive success, and spatiotemporal variation in habitat. Most studies focus on dispersal probabilities, but the distance traveled can affect survival, fitness, and even metapopulation dynamics.


We examined sources of variation in dispersal distances with 275 natal dispersal and 1335 interannual breeding events for piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) breeding in the Northern Great Plains between 2014 and 2019.


Natal dispersal was on average longer (mean: 81.0 km, median: 53 km) than adult breeding movements (mean: 23.7 km, median: 1 km). Individuals moved the shortest distances when hatched, previously nested, or settling on river habitats. When more habitat was available on their natal area than in the year prior, hatch-year birds moved shorter distances to their first breeding location. Similarly, adults also moved shorter distances when more habitat was available at the settling site and when in closer proximity to other known nesting areas. Additionally, adult movement distance was shorter when successfully hatching a nest the year prior, retaining a mate, or initiating a current nest earlier.


Habitat availability appears to be associated with dispersal distance for both hatch-year and adult piping plovers. Conservation efforts that integrate dispersal distances may benefit from maintaining nesting habitat within close proximity to other areas for adults and a network of clustered sites spread out across a larger landscape for natal dispersal.

Publication Year 2021
Title Dispersal distance is driven by habitat availability and reproductive success in Northern Great Plains piping plovers
DOI 10.1186/s40462-021-00293-3
Authors Rose J. Swift, Michael J. Anteau, Kristen S. Ellis, Megan Ring, Mark H. Sherfy, Dustin L. Toy
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Movement Ecology
Index ID 70228960
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center