An evolutionary process that assembles phenotypes
through space rather than through time
Richard Shinea,1, Gregory P. Browna, and Benjamin L. Phillipsb
aSchool of Biological Sciences A08, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia; andbSchool of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University,
Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia
Edited by David B. Wake, University of California, Berkeley, CA, and approved February 22, 2011 (received for review December 16, 2010)
In classical evolutionary theory, traits evolve because they facili-
tate organismal survival and/or reproduction. We discuss a differ-
ent type of evolutionary mechanism that relies upon differential
dispersal. Traits that enhance rates of dispersal inevitably accu-
mulate at expanding range edges, and assortative mating be-
tween fast-dispersing individuals at the invasion front results in an
evolutionary increase in dispersal rates in successive generations.
This cumulative process (which we dub “spatial sorting”) gener-
ates novel phenotypes that are adept at rapid dispersal, irrespec-
tive of how the underlying genes affect an organism’s survival or
its reproductive success. Although the concept is not original with
us, its revolutionary implications for evolutionary theory have
been overlooked. A range of biological phenomena (e.g., acceler-
ation of invasion fronts, insular flightlessness, preadaptation) may
have evolved via spatial sorting as well as (or rather than) by
natural selection, and this evolutionary mechanism warrants fur-
colonization|evolution|spatial disequilibrium|nonadaptive evolution
conditions. That mechanism was natural selection (1). At its heart
lies the concept of differential lifetime reproductive success
(LRS). Significant extensions to the paradigm since Darwin’s
work—such as multiple levels of selection (2, 3)—all rely upon
the basic principle that, through time, some genes leave more
copies of themselves than do others (4). Here we describe an
additional mechanism whereby traits evolve because genes are
differentially successful through space rather than time. This idea
is not new; the process was described long ago (5), has been ex-
plored in several spatially explicit models of nonequilibrial pop-
ulations (6–8), and is widely recognized by researchers who work
with range-edge dynamics (9). The basis of the idea is that on
expanding range edges evolutionary change can arise from dif-
ferential dispersal rates (spatial sorting) as well as from differ-
ential survival or reproductive success. Spatial sorting and
classical natural selection both require heritable variation, and
both result in deterministic shifts in phenotypic attributes, but the
two evolutionary processes rely on fundamentally different
mechanisms (spatial filtering versus temporal filtering). Main-
stream biology has failed to recognize that evolutionary change
can be caused by spatial sorting as well as by conventional
n 1859, Charles Darwin proposed a mechanism to explain the
process by which organisms become well matched to local
Imagine a species expanding its range into hitherto unoccupied
territory and with a genetic basis to variation among individuals in
dispersal rates (6–8). For example, continuously distributed vari-
ation may occur in dispersal-relevant morphological traits [e.g.,
seed shape (5), flight musculature and wing size (7, 10), leg length
(11), foot size (12)], behavior [movement patterns (13)], and
physiology [locomotor endurance (14)]. Alleles that confer the
highest rates of dispersal inevitably accumulate at the expanding
all start out (at birth) from a fixed point and move away from that
at the expanding range edge. Because an organism’s rate of dis-
persalisinfluenced bymany phenotypic traits,itwillbeaffectedby
many genes (15). Some of the organisms that disperse fast enough
to be at the invasion front are there because of speed, others be-
cause of endurance, others because of directional movement, and
still others because of lowered investment in processes that
tradeoff against dispersal [e.g., immune function (16)].
Those fast-dispersing individuals at the edges of the dispersing
front inevitably will breed with each other, because any individ-
uals that disperse slowly or nondirectionally will have been left
behind (8). Interbreeding at the fast-moving invasion front thus
will produce offspring with higher mean dispersal rates (and
hence higher extreme maximum values for dispersal-enhancing
traits, given additive genetic variance) than was the case in the
parental generation. Successive generations evolve faster and
faster dispersal by the colocation of such traits (e.g., genes con-
ferring speed, endurance, and high activity levels) within the same
individuals, even without new mutations (17). Such mutations
may be readily available, however, because they “surf” expanding
range fronts where selection against them is ineffective (18–20).
The end result is evolution—the cumulative assembly of a novel
phenotype that is adept at dispersal—but without requiring the
genes involved to affect an organism’s survival or reproduction
(i.e., without the operation of classical natural selection).
By analogy, imagine a race between rowboats (organisms)
crewed by randomly allocated oarsmen (genes). If all boats begin
simultaneously and head the same way, the proportion of skilled
oarsmen per boat (dispersal-enhancing genes per organism) will
be highest among the race leaders. If we stop the race at intervals
and interchange oarsmen at random among boats that are close
together at that part of the race (i.e., breeding between syntopic
individuals), some crews formed by exchanging oarsmen among
the fastest-moving boats will contain an even higher proportion
of skilled rowers. There will be an increasing spatial assortment
of rowing ability (dispersal rate) as the race progresses, because
interchange (breeding) at the vanguard produces “offspring” that
inherit their parent’s high mean dispersal rate (Fig. 1).
Anexpanding range edgeinevitably imposes a complex mixture
of selective forces driven both by classical natural selection and by
spatial sorting. For example, the departure of fast-dispersing
individuals from the core population means that if we look only
within that core area, there appears to be classical natural se-
lection for lower dispersal rates (i.e., the departing individuals do
notcontribute tofuturegenerations andsoaregenetically deadat
Author contributions: R.S., G.P.B., and B.L.P. designed research; R.S. performed research;
and R.S. and B.L.P. wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.
1To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: email@example.com.
This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.
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natural selection is not the only driver of evolution in this system;
the spatial sorting of genotypes caused by differential dispersal,
followed by random mating (at the periphery) will result in sig-
nificant and predictable evolutionary changes.
An extensive literature has identified a wide range of circum-
stances under which we would expect to see evolved increases in
dispersal ability at an expanding range edge. To our knowledge,
however, all these analyses have dealt with an amalgam of spatial
sorting and classical natural selection; for example, individuals at
the invasion vanguard may have higher LRS because of reduced
competition from conspecifics (6, 21) or because local popula-
tions have high rates of extinction and all surviving populations
are founded by former migrants (22, 23), or because dispersal
reduces competition among kin (24). Clearly, classical natural
selection often favors dispersal-enhancing phenotypes in non-
equilibrial systems. However, even if these classical selective
forces on dispersal-enhancing traits are absent (i.e., faster dis-
persaldoes notincrease thenumber ofgenes coding for dispersal-
enhancing traits in subsequent generations), spatial assortment
alone can generate the evolution of a highly dispersive phenotype
by cumulative directional change.
To test this proposition, we need to exclude any advantage to
faster dispersers in terms of LRS. In previous models, population
growth has been dictated by local density dependence, and thus
the evolution of increased dispersal on the invasion front (where
densities are lower) may have been driven by classical natural
selection processes rather than by spatial sorting. We constructed
an individual-based coupled map lattice model to exclude con-
ventional natural selection (i.e., an organism’s genotype has no
effect on its LRS). The lattice model shows that spatial sorting
alone can generate evolutionary change (Fig. 2 and SI Text). This
sorting process clearly results in evolution [a net directional
change over many generations (25)] but does not arise from
classical natural selection in that traits evolve in a predictable
direction despite never conferring any benefit in survival or re-
production to the organisms that exhibit them.
The simplicity of this process (cumulative spatial assortment of
dispersal-enhancing genes) means that spatial sorting will oper-
ate at expanding range edges unless the system lacks additive
genetic variation for traits that influence dispersal rate. Such a
lack is unlikely: Additive genetic variation for such traits is
common (26). Whether spatial sorting is significant is a more
difficult question to answer; for example, its effects on invasion
rate might be trivial relative to classical natural selection. To
answer this question, we will need detailed data on selective
factors at invasion fronts.
Evidence for Spatial Sorting
If selection at an invasion front favors faster dispersal (via spatial
assortment and/or classical natural-selection advantages), we
expect such fronts to be dominated by unusually fast-dispersing
individuals. Several systems show this pattern. For example, wing-
dimorphic crickets exhibit more large-winged individuals at the
expanding front (10); wind-dispersed seeds in lodgepole pines
have a higher ratio of wing to seed mass on the expanding front
developed flight muscles and wing aspect ratios (7); and ants have
higher proportions of dispersing females in invasion-front pop-
(km per annum) in a hypothetical organism that is in the process of range
expansion into hitherto unoccupied territory. The initial distribution of dis-
persal distances through time is given by the green curve (that is, some
individuals within the population do not disperse as far as others, and this
variation is genetically determined). The progeny of the fastest-dispersing
individuals in each generation (shown in red) exhibit a rapid increase in
mean values for per-generation dispersal, because assortative mating at the
invasion front progressively colocates multiple dispersal-enhancing genes
(e.g., for speed, endurance, and activity level) within individual organisms.
Through the generations, this pressure results in individuals that disperse
much faster than any in the original founding population, regardless of any
effects of dispersal rate on LRS.
A schematic model of the evolution of increasing dispersal distances
(rather than by orthodox natural selection for higher LRS) during the process
of range expansion. In this model system, dispersal probability and LRS
(number of offspring) are uncorrelated. (A) A sample of 1,000 individuals
from this population after 500 generations in an equilibrium space reveals
no net selection on dispersal probability. (B) After 100 generations of range
expansion, a sample of 1,000 individuals from the invasion front reveals
markedly different gene frequencies, with highly dispersive genes at high
frequency despite their lack of impact on LRS.
Change in gene frequencies arising through spatial sorting alone
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toad (Rhinella marina) in tropical Australia. The toad invasion
front has accelerated dramatically through its 75-y history (11, 28)
because of a three- to 10-fold increase in the daily dispersal rate
of invasion-front toads (8, 13). The accelerated dispersal reflects
changes in morphology [longer-legged toads are overrepresented
at the invasion front (11)], behavior [frontal toads move more
often, move further per move, and follow straighter paths (8, 13)],
and physiology [greater endurance (14)]. This spectacular phe-
notypic divergence has a genetic basis, as evidenced by significant
heritability of dispersal rates (29).
How can we distinguish between the effects of classical natural
selection and spatial sorting? Both hypotheses predict that in-
vasion fronts often will accelerate and be dominated by fast-
dispersing individuals. The simplest prediction to test involves
expanding range fronts in which faster dispersal has not been
favored by classical natural selection. Under those (possibly rare)
conditions, we would predict LRS to be uncorrelated or nega-
tively correlated with dispersal rate. For example, faster dis-
persers might experience higher mortality, or feed less, or grow
more slowly, or reproduce less often. Such correlations at an
invasion front [but not necessarily in a metapopulation system
(23)] would be inconsistent with conventional natural selection
as an explanation for accelerating expansion rate, leaving spatial
sorting as the only likely cause for accelerating rates of invasion.
We do not have enough data to test this proposition. Even in
the most intensively studied invasion-front system [cane toads
in Australia (11, 13, 14)], the fitness consequences of variation in
dispersal rate remain unclear. However, the effects of dispersal
rate on viability often are negative in this system: The locomotor
traits that enhance dispersal rate also cause spinal injuries (30,
31), and highly dispersive toads suffer higher mortality (8). These
patterns suggest spatial sorting rather than classical natural se-
lection is at work, but further studies of natural selection on rates
of dispersal in invasion-front populations are needed.
What Phenotypic Traits Can Be Affected by Spatial Sorting?
Spatial sorting could favor the elaboration of any trait that
enhances an organism’s ability to disperse, not just locomotor
structures or physiological traits as described above. For exam-
ple, some taxa are transported by attaching themselves to other
species (e.g., burrs, ticks), or in the digestive tract [e.g., seeds and
fruits (32)], or in vehicles [stowaways in cars and boats (33–35)].
Spatial sorting also may favor bold, risk-taking behaviors (36) or
individuals that readily handle the stress of intense physical ac-
tivity and novel environments. Our first human ancestors to cross
the oceans and invade new lands probably were highly non-
random in dispersal-relevant traits as well as in behavioral flex-
ibility and within-group cooperation (5, 37). Indeed, selection for
rapid dispersal at the invasion front may explain the rapid spread
of modern humans through Europe and North America and the
large body sizes of those early dispersers (37, 38). In other taxa,
selection for rapid rates of range expansion might affect traits
such as social responsiveness (39) or high levels of aggression, as
in killer bees (40) and birds (41).
Any parasite that infects a range-expanding host taxon will
itself be subject to spatial sorting (42). Candidate traits involve
duration of attachment to the range-expanding host (e.g., gut
passage time of internal parasites) and life-history shifts that
increase the probability of finding new hosts (which probably are
at low densities on the invasion front). Virulence also should be
under selection: Because parasites that cause only minor illness
impede host dispersal less than parasites that debilitate the host,
we expect the evolution of lowered virulence in parasites near
the invasion front (42). Some of the loss of native-range parasites
in introduced species may be due to this process (42).
Spatial sorting offers a possible alternative explanation for
many other biological phenomena. For example, imagine a spe-
cies that expands its range by dispersing from the mainland to
numerous islands and exhibits strong phenotypic similarities
between organisms on different islands even though they were
founded by separate dispersal events from the mainland. The
Darwinian view would attribute that similarity to convergent
adaptation to island conditions, but spatial sorting could gener-
ate the same pattern (5, 12, 43, 44). That is, individuals from
island populations resemble each other not because they have
experienced similar selective forces in their insular homes but
because of similar winnowing for dispersal-enhancing pheno-
types in the process of reaching those islands. Similarly, specific
phenotypic traits that facilitate success during the transport
phase could be overrepresented in founding populations of
translocated species (15).
Intriguingly, spatial sorting also might generate distinctive
phenotypes at the lower end of the dispersal-rate continuum by
favoring lower, not higher, dispersal rates (45). This situation
could be the exact opposite of the one described in the previous
paragraph. Imagine an island population with genetically based
individual variation in dispersal ability (say, variation in wing
length). All individuals with large wings can disperse to high-
quality habitat on the nearby mainland and achieve higher LRS by
doing so. Because small-winged individuals cannot leave the
island, they have lower LRS and are the only ones left behind in
the ancestral patch. Over time, interbreeding of small-winged
individuals on the ancestral patch could generate a novel pheno-
type, by colocating many alleles that prevent normal development
of the wings. This model predicts the evolution of flightlessness on
islands without positing any LRS advantage for the trait. Ever
since Darwin, reduced dispersal rates in island organisms have
been attributed to LRS differentials; that is, dispersing individuals
die because they cannot find new habitat patches (43, 46). Spatial
sorting offers an alternative explanation, simpler than the Dar-
winian hypothesis: Insular flightlessness can evolve regardless of
whether dispersing individuals have higher or lower LRS than
their sedentary conspecifics (46).
Another classical topic in evolutionary theory is preadaptation
as an explanation for complex traits that (i) enhance the bearer’s
current LRS but (ii) differ so much from the ancestral condition
that they would require multiple sequential changes to exhibit
their current form, and (iii) for which it is difficult to imagine
functional advantages (i.e., enhanced LRS) for the intermediate
stages. Wings are clearly useful for birds, but what use is half
a wing (47)? Possible solutions to this puzzle include gradually
accumulating functional advantages (e.g., vertebrate visual sys-
tems) or shifts in function [e.g., feathers evolve for thermoregu-
lation and then are co-opted for locomotion (47)]. Spatial sorting
phenotypic traits, in novel combinations, without requiring the
modifications to enhance LRS. This process might amplify the
phenotypic variation upon which conventional natural selection
can operate, allowing lineages to cross adaptive valleys between
fitness peaks (48).
Both spatial sorting and classical natural selection require heri-
table variation, but the two evolutionary processes differ in the
mechanism causing trait evolution (spatial versus temporal fil-
tering). The assumptions underlying spatial sorting are simple
and realistic, and the process itself has been recognized for dec-
ades (5). Nonetheless, it has not been widely understood that
spatial sorting differs from classical natural selection in not re-
quiring differential LRS and thus does not constitute natural
selection as that process currently is defined. There are at least
two potential solutions to this nomenclatural problem:
i) Expand our definition of “natural selection” to include
processes driven by spatial as well as temporal filtering.
| www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1018989108 Shine et al.
Classical natural selection and spatial sorting thus would Download full-text
be viewed as subsets of natural selection (the former based
on differentials in survival and/or reproductive success
through time, and the latter on differentials in dispersal rate
through space). We would have to envisage selection work-
ing on variance among individuals in dispersal-enhancing
traits as well as on mating ability, fertilizing ability, fertility,
fecundity, and/or survivorship (25). Because all the other
measures have their effect via LRS, but dispersal-driven
selection does not, combining categories in this way would
conceal an important difference.
ii) Retain the current definition of “natural selection”(25), and
treat spatial sorting as a different (additional) type of evo-
lutionary process. This option avoids potentially confusing
implications of the term “selection” (which implies differen-
tial LRS to most evolutionary biologists) and identifies spa-
tial sorting as fundamentally different from the processes
that Charles Darwin described. Under this terminology, de-
terministic evolutionary change can occur via either of two
processes—not only through natural selection (as currently
understood) but also through spatial sorting. This option is
the one we advocate.
affect dispersal rate or ability) and within a more restricted set of
conditions (range edges) than does classical natural selection.
Nonetheless, the possibility that some traits have evolved via
“mating betwixt the quickest” rather than “survival of the fittest”
warrants further attention (15). In a nonequilibrial world where
many taxa are changing their distributions because of anthropo-
genicchallenges,theevolutionaryforcesoperating on theedges of
expanding populations deserve careful study. Many species exhibit
strong metapopulation structure, with frequent local extinctions
followed by recolonizations (49), and each of those recolonization
events provides an opportunity for spatial sorting to mold pheno-
typic attributes. Spatial sorting may prove to be classical natural
selection’s shy younger sibling, not as important as Darwinian
spatial assortment has played a significant role in biological evo-
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank our colleagues in Team Bufo (especially
J. Travis and S. Baird) for their generous exchange of ideas, two anony-
mous reviewers for helpful comments, and the Australian Research Council
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