Theory predicts source-sink dynamics can occur in species with the ideal preemptive distribution but not with the ideal free distribution. Source-sink dynamics can also occur in species with passive dispersal, in which a fixed fraction of the population disperses each generation. However, in nature, dispersal often approximates random diffusion rather than ideal choices or fixed probabilities. Here, I ask which dispersal system occurred in a butterfly (Euphydryas editha) known to have source-sink dynamics. The study used 13 experimental sites, where vacant and occupied habitat patches were juxtaposed. I estimated movement during the flight season and tested hypotheses about the type of dispersal system. Ideal free and ideal preemptive models were rejected because per capita movement rates were density independent. Passive dispersal was rejected because per capita rates were related to patch area and habitat preference. The diffusion model best explained the data because it predicted both the area relationship and an odd feature of the habitat preference: immigration was not higher in preferred habitat; rather, emigration was lower. The diffusion model implied that source-sink dynamics were driven by diffusion from areas of high to low population density. Existing source-sink theory assumes fine-scale patchiness, in which animals have perfect knowledge and ease of mobility. The results from the butterfly suggest that source-sink dynamics arise at coarser spatial scales, where diffusion models apply.
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