Gene flow among populations is typically thought to be antagonistic to population differentiation and local adaptation. However, this assumes that dispersing individuals disperse randomly with respect to their ability to use the environment. Yet dispersing individuals often sample and compare environments and settle in those environments that best match their phenotype, causing directed gene flow, which can in fact promote population differentiation and adaptation. We refer to this process as “matching habitat choice.” Although this process has been acknowledged by several researchers, no synthesis or perspective on its potentially widespread importance exists. Here we synthesize empirical and theoretical studies, and offer a new perspective that matching habitat choice can have significant effects on important and controversial topics. We discuss the potential implications of matching habitat choice for the degree and rate of local adaptation, the evolution of niche width, adaptive peak shifts, speciation in the presence of gene flow, and on our view and interpretation of measures of natural selection. Because of its potential importance for such a wide range of topics, we call for heightened empirical and theoretical attention for this neglected dimension in evolutionary and ecological studies.
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