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Concept: Carrying capacity


The discipline of sustainability science has emerged in response to concerns of natural and social scientists, policymakers, and lay people about whether the Earth can continue to support human population growth and economic prosperity. Yet, sustainability science has developed largely independently from and with little reference to key ecological principles that govern life on Earth. A macroecological perspective highlights three principles that should be integral to sustainability science: 1) physical conservation laws govern the flows of energy and materials between human systems and the environment, 2) smaller systems are connected by these flows to larger systems in which they are embedded, and 3) global constraints ultimately limit flows at smaller scales. Over the past few decades, decreasing per capita rates of consumption of petroleum, phosphate, agricultural land, fresh water, fish, and wood indicate that the growing human population has surpassed the capacity of the Earth to supply enough of these essential resources to sustain even the current population and level of socioeconomic development.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Ecology, Natural environment, Sustainability, World population, Carrying capacity, Environmental movement


Trade-offs among species' ecological interactions is a pervasive explanation for species coexistence. The traits associated with trade-offs are typically measured to mechanistically explain species coexistence at a single spatial scale. However, species potentially interact at multiple scales and this may be reflected in the traits among coexisting species. I quantified species' ecological traits associated with the trade-offs expected at both local (competitive ability and predator tolerance) and regional (competitive ability and colonization rate) community scales. The most common species (four protozoa and a rotifer) from the middle trophic level of a pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) inquiline community were used to link species traits to previously observed patterns of species diversity and abundance. Traits associated with trade-offs (competitive ability, predator tolerance, and colonization rate) and other ecological traits (size, growth rate, and carrying capacity) were measured for each of the focal species. Traits were correlated with one another with a negative relationship indicative of a trade-off. Protozoan and rotifer species exhibited a negative relationship between competitive ability and predator tolerance, indicative of coexistence at the local community scale. There was no relationship between competitive ability and colonization rate. Size, growth rate, and carrying capacity were correlated with each other and the trade-off traits: Size was related to both competitive ability and predator tolerance, but growth rate and carrying capacity were correlated with predator tolerance. When partial correlations were conducted controlling for size, growth rate and carrying capacity, the trade-offs largely disappeared. These results imply that body size is the trait that provides the basis for ecological interactions and trade-offs. Altogether, this study showed that the examination of species' traits in the context of coexistence at different scales can contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying community structure.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Pitcher plant, Trophic level, Trophic dynamics, Carrying capacity, Sarracenia purpurea, Sarracenia


Seabird population changes are good indicators of long-term and large-scale change in marine ecosystems, and important because of their many impacts on marine ecosystems. We assessed the population trend of the world’s monitored seabirds (1950-2010) by compiling a global database of seabird population size records and applying multivariate autoregressive state-space (MARSS) modeling to estimate the overall population trend of the portion of the population with sufficient data (i.e., at least five records). This monitored population represented approximately 19% of the global seabird population. We found the monitored portion of the global seabird population to have declined overall by 69.7% between 1950 and 2010. This declining trend may reflect the global seabird population trend, given the large and apparently representative sample. Furthermore, the largest declines were observed in families containing wide-ranging pelagic species, suggesting that pan-global populations may be more at risk than shorter-ranging coastal populations.

Concepts: Sample, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Demographic economics, World population, Carrying capacity, Population growth


Segments of identity by descent (IBD) detected from high-density genetic data are useful for many applications, including long-range phase determination, phasing family data, imputation, IBD mapping and heritability analysis in founder populations. We present Refined IBD, a new method for IBD segment detection. Refined IBD achieves both computational efficiency and highly accurate IBD segment reporting by searching for IBD in two steps. The first step (identification) uses the GERMLINE algorithm to find shared haplotypes exceeding a length threshold. The second step (refinement), evaluates candidate segments with a probabilistic approach to assess the evidence for IBD. Like GERMLINE, Refined IBD allows for IBD reporting on a haplotype level, which facilitates determination of multi-individual IBD and allows for haplotype-based downstream analyses. To investigate the properties of Refined IBD, we simulate SNP data from a model with recent super-exponential population growth that is designed to match UK data. The simulation results show that Refined IBD achieves a better power/accuracy profile than fastIBD or GERMLINE. We find that a single run of Refined IBD achieves greater power than 10 runs of fastIBD. We also apply Refined IBD to SNP data for samples from the UK and from Northern Finland, and describe the IBD sharing in these data sets. Refined IBD is powerful, highly accurate, easy to use, and is implemented in Beagle version 4.

Concepts: Genetics, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Accuracy and precision, Segment, World population, Carrying capacity


Determining which demographic and ecological parameters contribute to variation in population growth rate is crucial to understanding the dynamics of declining populations. This study aimed to evaluate the magnitude and mechanisms of an apparent major decline in an Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica population. This was achieved using a 27-year dataset to estimate changes in population size and in two key demographic rates: adult survival and breeding success. Estimated demographic variation was then related to two ecological factors hypothesised to be key drivers of demographic change, namely the abundance of the main predator at the study site, the Great Skua Stercorarius skua, and Atlantic Puffin chick food supply, over the same 27-year period. Using a population model, we assessed whether estimated variation in adult survival and reproductive success was sufficient to explain the population change observed. Estimates of Atlantic Puffin population size decreased considerably during the study period, approximately halving, whereas Great Skua population estimates increased, approximately trebling. Estimated adult Atlantic Puffin survival remained high across all years and did not vary with Great Skua abundance; however, Atlantic Puffin breeding success and quantities of fish prey brought ashore by adults both decreased substantially through the period. A population model combining best possible demographic parameter estimates predicted rapid population growth, at odds with the long-term decrease observed. To simulate the observed decrease, population models had to incorporate low immature survival, high immature emigration, or increasingly high adult non-breeding rates. We concluded that reduced recruitment of immatures into the breeding population was the most likely cause of population decrease. This study showed that increase in the size of a predator population does not always impact on the survival of adult prey and that reduced recruitment can be a crucial determinant of seabird population size but can easily go undetected.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Demographic economics, World population, Carrying capacity, Population growth, Puffin


We study the dynamics of a predator-prey system where predators fight for captured prey besides searching for and handling (and digestion) of the prey. Fighting for prey is modelled by a continuous time hawk-dove game dynamics where the gain depends on the amount of disputed prey while the costs for fighting is constant per fighting event. The strategy of the predator-population is quantified by a trait being the proportion of the number of predator-individuals playing hawk tactics. The dynamics of the trait is described by two models of adaptation: the replicator dynamics (RD) and the adaptive dynamics (AD). In the RD-approach a variant individual with an adapted trait value changes the population’s strategy, and consequently its trait value, only when its payoff is larger than the population average. In the AD-approach successful replacement of the resident population after invasion of a rare variant population with an adapted trait value is a step in a sequence changing the population’s strategy, and hence its trait value. The main aim is to compare the consequences of the two adaptation models. In an equilibrium predator-prey system this will lead to convergence to a neutral singular strategy, while in the oscillatory system to a continuous singular strategy where in this endpoint the resident population is not invasible by any variant population. In equilibrium (low prey carrying capacity) RD and AD-approach give the same results, however not always in a periodically oscillating system (high prey carrying-capacity) where the trait is density-dependent. For low costs the predator population is monomorphic (only hawks) while for high costs dimorphic (hawks and doves). These results illustrate that intra-specific trait dynamics matters in predator-prey dynamics.

Concepts: Game theory, Population, Predation, Ecology, Lotka–Volterra equation, Cat, Hunting, Carrying capacity


It has been suggested that the ecological impact of crickets as a source of dietary protein is less than conventional forms of livestock due to their comparatively efficient feed conversion and ability to consume organic side-streams. This study measured the biomass output and feed conversion ratios of house crickets (Acheta domesticus) reared on diets that varied in quality, ranging from grain-based to highly cellulosic diets. The measurements were made at a much greater population scale and density than any previously reported in the scientific literature. The biomass accumulation was strongly influenced by the quality of the diet (p<0.001), with the nitrogen (N) content, the ratio of N to acid detergent fiber (ADF) content, and the crude fat (CF) content (y=N/ADF+CF) explaining most of the variability between feed treatments (p = 0.02; R2 = 0.96). In addition, for populations of crickets that were able to survive to a harvestable size, the feed conversion ratios measured were higher (less efficient) than those reported from studies conducted at smaller scales and lower population densities. Compared to the industrial-scale production of chickens, crickets fed a poultry feed diet showed little improvement in protein conversion efficiency, a key metric in determining the ecological footprint of grain-based livestock protein. Crickets fed the solid filtrate from food waste processed at an industrial scale via enzymatic digestion were able to reach a harvestable size and achieve feed and protein efficiencies similar to that of chickens. However, crickets fed minimally-processed, municipal-scale food waste and diets composed largely of straw experienced >99% mortality without reaching a harvestable size. Therefore, the potential for A. domesticus to sustainably supplement the global protein supply, beyond what is currently produced via grain-fed chickens, will depend on capturing regionally scalable organic side-streams of relatively high-quality that are not currently being used for livestock production.

Concepts: Protein, Population, Population ecology, Ecology, Ratio, Population density, Carrying capacity, House cricket


Black swans are improbable events that nonetheless occur-often with profound consequences. Such events drive important transitions in social systems (e.g., banking collapses) and physical systems (e.g., earthquakes), and yet it remains unclear the extent to which ecological population numbers buffer or suffer from such extremes. Here, we estimate the prevalence and direction of black-swan events (heavy-tailed process noise) in 609 animal populations after accounting for population dynamics (productivity, density dependence, and typical stochasticity). We find strong evidence for black-swan events in [Formula: see text]4% of populations. These events occur most frequently for birds (7%), mammals (5%), and insects (3%) and are not explained by any life-history covariates but tend to be driven by external perturbations such as climate, severe winters, predators, parasites, or the combined effect of multiple factors. Black-swan events manifest primarily as population die-offs and crashes (86%) rather than unexpected increases, and ignoring heavy-tailed process noise leads to an underestimate in the magnitude of population crashes. We suggest modelers consider heavy-tailed, downward-skewed probability distributions, such as the skewed Student [Formula: see text] used here, when making forecasts of population abundance. Our results demonstrate the importance of both modeling heavy-tailed downward events in populations, and developing conservation strategies that are robust to ecological surprises.

Concepts: Biology, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Population density, World population, Carrying capacity, Nurgaliev's law


Coastal zones are exposed to a range of coastal hazards including sea-level rise with its related effects. At the same time, they are more densely populated than the hinterland and exhibit higher rates of population growth and urbanisation. As this trend is expected to continue into the future, we investigate how coastal populations will be affected by such impacts at global and regional scales by the years 2030 and 2060. Starting from baseline population estimates for the year 2000, we assess future population change in the low-elevation coastal zone and trends in exposure to 100-year coastal floods based on four different sea-level and socio-economic scenarios. Our method accounts for differential growth of coastal areas against the land-locked hinterland and for trends of urbanisation and expansive urban growth, as currently observed, but does not explicitly consider possible displacement or out-migration due to factors such as sea-level rise. We combine spatially explicit estimates of the baseline population with demographic data in order to derive scenario-driven projections of coastal population development. Our scenarios show that the number of people living in the low-elevation coastal zone, as well as the number of people exposed to flooding from 1-in-100 year storm surge events, is highest in Asia. China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Viet Nam are estimated to have the highest total coastal population exposure in the baseline year and this ranking is expected to remain largely unchanged in the future. However, Africa is expected to experience the highest rates of population growth and urbanisation in the coastal zone, particularly in Egypt and sub-Saharan countries in Western and Eastern Africa. The results highlight countries and regions with a high degree of exposure to coastal flooding and help identifying regions where policies and adaptive planning for building resilient coastal communities are not only desirable but essential. Furthermore, we identify needs for further research and scope for improvement in this kind of scenario-based exposure analysis.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Population density, Demographic economics, World population, Flood, Carrying capacity


The natural, prehuman abundance of most large predators is unknown because of the lack of historical data and a limited understanding of the natural factors that control their populations. Determining the supportable predator biomass at a given location (that is, the predator carrying capacity) would help managers to optimize protection and would provide site-specific recovery goals. We assess the relationship between predatory reef fish biomass and several anthropogenic and environmental variables at 39 reefs across the Caribbean to (i) estimate their roles determining local predator biomass and (ii) determine site-specific recovery potential if fishing was eliminated. We show that predatory reef fish biomass tends to be higher in marine reserves but is strongly negatively related to human activities, especially coastal development. However, human activities and natural factors, including reef complexity and prey abundance, explain more than 50% of the spatial variation in predator biomass. Comparing site-specific predator carrying capacities to field observations, we infer that current predatory reef fish biomass is 60 to 90% lower than the potential supportable biomass in most sites, even within most marine reserves. We also found that the scope for recovery varies among reefs by at least an order of magnitude. This suggests that we could underestimate unfished biomass at sites that provide ideal conditions for predators or greatly overestimate that of seemingly predator-depleted sites that may have never supported large predator populations because of suboptimal environmental conditions.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Coral reef, Hunting, Carrying capacity, Zooplankton, Starfish, Predatory fish