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Dispersal in Ecology: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:04 Benefits
  • 1:48 Costs
  • 2:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

When you see a bunch of seeds floating through the air, they are dispersing in order to move to a new home. Both plants and animals disperse actively or passively. We'll discuss both ways in this lesson.

Definition

Have you ever walked through a field and found yourself covered with seeds, burrs, or other 'hitchhikers'? These seeds and spores latch onto your pants because it helps them move from one place to another. In ecology, this is referred to as dispersal. Dispersal is when individuals or seeds move from one site to a breeding or growing site.

Individuals may disperse actively or passively. Active dispersal is when organisms move from one location to another without assistance. Examples of animals that actively disperse are bats, birds, and butterflies. Passive dispersal is when an organism needs assistance moving from place to place. The seeds in the previous example are dispersing passively, as do animals such as sponges and corals.

Passive dispersal in plants can occur in a variety of ways. The seeds in the above example latched onto your pants to disperse, but they may also catch on the fur of animals. Some seeds and spores use wind to disperse, while others may float in water until they reach their destination.

Benefits

When dispersal occurs, it's because it is more beneficial to do so than to stay in the same location. Dispersing increases the range of the species and allows it to exist where it was not present before. When a species increases its range, the population has an opportunity to increase and spread.

Individuals may also disperse to decrease competition for resources in the environment. Moving to a new area may allow some individuals access to resources, such as food, water, and shelter, that would not otherwise be available.

Abiotic factors (non-living factors in the environment) may also encourage dispersal. Wind and rain can carry seeds, and if temperature or climate conditions are unfavorable, it may benefit individuals to move to a new location to escape such conditions.

Costs

While the benefits generally outweigh the negative aspects, there are costs to dispersing. In both active and passive dispersal, individuals risk being harmed or killed during movement. It is also energetically costly to move from one place to another. Additionally, the time spent moving is not being used for other beneficial activities, like reproducing or growing.

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