Population Demographics and Dynamics
Inquire: Population Demographics and Dynamics
Populations are individuals of a species that live in a particular habitat. Populations are dynamic life forms. Their size and composition change in response to many factors, including seasonal and yearly changes in the environment, natural disasters such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions, and competition for resources between and within species. Ecologists measure characteristics of populations: size, density, and distribution pattern. Life tables are useful to calculate life expectancies of individual population members. Survivorship curves show the number of individuals surviving at each age interval plotted versus time.
How do ecologists measure population size and density?
Watch: Estimating Population Size
Read: Population Demographics and Dynamics
Populations are dynamic life forms. Their size and composition change in response to many factors, including seasonal and yearly changes in the environment, natural disasters such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions, and competition for resources between and within species.
The statistical study of populations is called demography: a set of mathematical tools designed to describe populations and investigate how they change. Many of these tools were actually designed to study human populations. For example, life tables, which detail the life expectancy of individuals within a population, were initially developed by life insurance companies to set insurance rates. In fact, while the term “demographics” is sometimes assumed to mean a study of human populations, all living populations can be studied using this approach.
Population Size and Density
Populations are characterized by their population size (total number of individuals) and their population density (number of individuals per unit area). A population may have a large number of individuals that are distributed densely, or sparsely. There are also populations with small numbers of individuals that may be dense or very sparsely distributed in a local area. Population size can affect potential for adaptation because it affects the amount of genetic variation present in the population. Density can have effects on interactions within a population such as competition for food and the ability of individuals to find a mate. Smaller organisms tend to be more densely distributed than larger organisms.
Estimating Population Size
The most accurate way to determine population size is to count all the individuals within the area. However, this method is usually not logistically or economically feasible, especially when studying large areas. Thus, scientists usually study populations by sampling a portion of each habitat and use this sample to make inferences about the population as a whole. The methods used to sample populations to determine their size and density are typically tailored to the characteristics of the organism being studied. For immobile organisms such as plants, or for very small and slow-moving organisms, a quadrat may be used. A quadrat is a wood, plastic, or metal square that is randomly located on the ground and used to count the number of individuals that lie within its boundaries. To obtain an accurate count using this method, the square must be placed at random locations within the habitat enough times to produce an accurate estimate. This counting method will provide an estimate of both population size and density. The number and size of quadrat samples depends on the type of organisms and the nature of their distribution.
For smaller mobile organisms, such as mammals, a technique called mark and recapture is often used. This method involves marking a sample of captured animals in some way and releasing them back into the environment to mix with the rest of the population; then, a new sample is captured and scientists determine how many of the marked animals are in the new sample. This method assumes that the larger the population, the lower the percentage of marked organisms that will be recaptured since they will have mixed with more unmarked individuals. For example, if 80 field mice are captured, marked, and released into the forest, then a second trapping of 100 field mice are captured and 20 of them are marked, the population size can be determined using a mathematical equation.
The result gives us an estimate of total individuals in the original population. The true number usually will be a bit different from this because of chance errors and possible bias caused by the sampling methods.
In addition to measuring density, further information about a population can be obtained by looking at the distribution of the individuals throughout their range. A species distribution pattern is the distribution of individuals within a habitat at a particular point in time — broad categories of patterns are used to describe them.
Individuals within a population can be distributed at random, in groups, or equally spaced apart (more or less). These are known as random, clumped, and uniform distribution patterns, respectively. Different distributions reflect important aspects of the biology of the species; they also affect the mathematical methods required to estimate population sizes. An example of random distribution occurs with dandelions and other plants that have wind-dispersed seeds that germinate wherever they happen to fall in favorable environments. A clumped distribution may be seen in plants that drop their seeds straight to the ground, such as oak trees; it can also be seen in animals that live in social groups (schools of fish or herds of elephants). Uniform distribution is observed in plants that secrete substances inhibiting the growth of nearby individuals (such as the release of toxic chemicals by sage plants). It is also seen in territorial animal species, such as penguins that maintain a defined territory for nesting. The territorial defensive behaviors of each individual create a regular pattern of distribution of similar-sized territories and individuals within those territories. Thus, the distribution of the individuals within a population provides more information about how they interact with each other than does a simple density measurement. Just as lower density species might have more difficulty finding a mate, solitary species with a random distribution might have a similar difficulty when compared to social species clumped together in groups.
Reflect: Survivorship Curves
Survivorship curves show the distribution of individuals in a population according to age. Humans and most mammals have a type I survivorship curve because death primarily occurs in the older years. Birds have a type II survivorship curve as death at any age is equally probable. Trees have a type III survivorship curve because very few survive the younger years, but after a certain age, individuals are much more likely to survive.
While population size and density describe a population at one particular point in time, scientists must use demography to study the dynamics of a population. Demography is the statistical study of population changes over time: birth rates, death rates, and life expectancies. These population characteristics are often displayed in a life table.
Life tables provide important information about the life history of an organism and the life expectancy of individuals at each age. They are modeled after actuarial tables used by the insurance industry for estimating human life expectancy. Life tables may include the probability of each age group dying before their next birthday, the percentage of surviving individuals dying at a particular age interval (their mortality rate, and their life expectancy at each interval).
Another tool used by population ecologists is a survivorship curve, which is a graph of the number of individuals surviving at each age interval versus time. These curves allow us to compare the life histories of different populations. There are three types of survivorship curves. In a type I curve, mortality is low in the early and middle years and occurs mostly in older individuals. Organisms exhibiting a type I survivorship typically produce few offspring and provide good care to the offspring increasing the likelihood of their survival. Humans and most mammals exhibit a type I survivorship curve. In type II curves, mortality is relatively constant throughout the entire life span, and mortality is equally likely to occur at any point in the life span. Many bird populations provide examples of an intermediate or type II survivorship curve. In type III survivorship curves, early ages experience the highest mortality with much lower mortality rates for organisms that make it to advanced years. Type III organisms typically produce large numbers of offspring, but provide very little or no care for them. Trees and marine invertebrates exhibit a type III survivorship curve because very few of these organisms survive their younger years, but those that do make it to an old age are more likely to survive for a relatively long period of time.
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Density can have effects on interactions within a population such as competition for food and the ability of individuals to find a mate.CorrectIncorrect
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Mark and recapture is a method used to determine population size in mobile organisms.CorrectIncorrect
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Life tables were initially developed by life insurance companies to set insurance rates.CorrectIncorrect
- demographythe statistical study of changes in populations over time
- life tablestables showing the life expectancy of a population member based on its age
- mark and recapturea method used to determine population size in mobile organisms
- mortality ratethe proportion of population surviving to the beginning of an age interval that dies during that age interval
- population densitythe number of population members divided by the area being measured
- population sizethe number of individuals in a population
- quadrata square within which a count of individuals is made that is combined with other such counts to determine population size and density in slow moving or stationary organisms
- species distribution patternthe distribution of individuals within a habitat at a given point in time
- survivorship curvea graph of the number of surviving population members versus the relative age of the member
License and Citations
Authored and curated by Jill Carson for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0
Title: Biology – 19.1 Population Demographics and Dynamics – Population Size and Density: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0
|Figure 3. Survivorship curves||OpenStax||OpenStax||CC BY 4.0|
|“Life tables”, William Farr Wellcome L0016433||Wellcome Collection gallery||Wikimedia Commons||CC BY 4.0|
|Penguin Bird Animal||webandi||Pixabay||CC 0|
|Abstract Architecture Contemporary||Pexels||Pixabay||CC 0|