Compared to population growth regulated by local conditions, dispersal has been underappreciated as a central process shaping the spatial distribution of populations. This paper asks: (a) which conditions increase the importance of dispersers relative to local recruits in determining population sizes? and (b) how does dispersal influence the spatial distribution patterns of abundances among connected populations? We approached these questions with a simulation model of populations on a coupled lattice with cells of continuously varying habitat quality expressed as carrying capacities. Each cell contained a population with the basic dynamics of density-regulated growth, and was connected to other populations by immigration and emigration. The degree to which dispersal influenced the distribution of population sizes depended most strongly on the absolute amount of dispersal, and then on the potential population growth rate. Dispersal decaying in intensity with distance left close neighbours more alike in population size than distant populations, leading to an increase in spatial autocorrelation. The spatial distribution of species with low potential growth rates is more dependent on dispersal than that of species with high growth rates; therefore, distribution modelling for species with low growth rates requires particular attention to autocorrelation, and conservation management of these species requires attention to factors curtailing dispersal, such as fragmentation and dispersal barriers. ?? 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.