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Individuals from small populations face challenges to initiating reproduction because stochastic demographic processes create local mate scarcity. In response, flexible dispersal patterns that facilitate the movement of individuals across groups have been argued to reduce mate search costs and inbreeding depression. Furthermore, factors that aggregate dispersed peoples, such as rural schools, could lower mate search costs through expansion of mating markets. However, research suggests that dispersal and school attendance are costly to fertility, causing individuals to delay marriage and reproduction. Here, we investigate the role of dispersal and school attendance on marriage and reproductive outcomes using a sample of 54 married couples from four small, dispersed ranching communities in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Our analyses yield three sets of results that challenge conventional expectations. First, we find no evidence that dispersal is associated with later age at marriage or first reproduction for women. For men, dispersal is associated with younger ages of marriage than those who stay in their natal area. Second, in contrast to research suggesting that dispersal decreases inbreeding, we find that female dispersal is associated with an increase in genetic relatedness among marriage partners. This finding suggests that human dispersal promotes female social support from genetic kin in novel locales for raising offspring. Third, counter to typical results on the role of education on reproductive timing, school attendance is associated with younger age at marriage for men and younger age at first birth for women. While we temper causal interpretations and claims of generalizability beyond our study site given our small sample sizes (a feature of small populations), we nonetheless argue that factors like dispersal and school attendance, which are typically associated with delayed reproduction in large population, may actually lower mate search costs in small, dispersed populations with minimal access to labor markets.


This article was originally published in PLoS ONE, volume 15, issue 10, in 2020.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.