Bottom-up and top-down control of dispersal across major organismal groups: a coordinated distributed experiment


Organisms rarely experience a homogeneous environment. Rather, ecological and evolutionary dynamics unfold in spatially structured and fragmented landscapes, with dispersal as the central process linking these dynamics across spatial scales. Because dispersal is a multi-causal and highly plastic life-history trait, finding general drivers that are of importance across species is challenging but highly relevant for ecological forecasting. We here tested whether two fundamental ecological forces and main determinants of local population dynamics, top-down and bottom-up control, generally explain dispersal in spatially structured communities. In a coordinated distributed experiment spanning a wide range of actively dispersing organisms, from protozoa to vertebrates, we show that bottom-up control, that is resource limitation, consistently increased dispersal. While top-down control, that is predation risk, was an equally important dispersal driver as bottom-up control, its effect depended on prey and predator space use and whether dispersal occurred on land, in water or in the air: species that routinely use more space than their predators showed increased dispersal in response to predation, specifically in aquatic environments. After establishing these general causes of dispersal, we used a metacommunity model to show that bottom-up and top-down control of dispersal has important consequences for local population fluctuations as well as cascading effects on regional metacommunity dynamics. Context-dependent dispersal reduced local population fluctuations and desynchronized dynamics between communities, two effects that increase population and community stability. Our study provides unprecedented insights into the generality of the positive resource dependency of dispersal as well as a robust experimental test of current theory predicting that predator-induced dispersal is modulated by prey and predator space use. Our experimental and theoretical work highlights the critical importance of the multi-causal nature of dispersal as well as its cascading effects on regional community dynamics, which are specifically relevant to ecological forecasting.