Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Population density


African forest elephants- taxonomically and functionally unique-are being poached at accelerating rates, but we lack range-wide information on the repercussions. Analysis of the largest survey dataset ever assembled for forest elephants (80 foot-surveys; covering 13,000 km; 91,600 person-days of fieldwork) revealed that population size declined by ca. 62% between 2002-2011, and the taxon lost 30% of its geographical range. The population is now less than 10% of its potential size, occupying less than 25% of its potential range. High human population density, hunting intensity, absence of law enforcement, poor governance, and proximity to expanding infrastructure are the strongest predictors of decline. To save the remaining African forest elephants, illegal poaching for ivory and encroachment into core elephant habitat must be stopped. In addition, the international demand for ivory, which fuels illegal trade, must be dramatically reduced.

Concepts: Africa, Demography, Population, Population density, Hunting, Elephant, African Bush Elephant, African Forest Elephant


Somatic growth patterns represent a major component of organismal fitness and may vary among sexes and populations due to genetic and environmental processes leading to profound differences in life-history and demography. This study considered the ontogenic, sex-specific and spatial dynamics of somatic growth patterns in ten populations of the world’s largest lizard the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis). The growth of 400 individual Komodo dragons was measured in a capture-mark-recapture study at ten sites on four islands in eastern Indonesia, from 2002 to 2010. Generalized Additive Mixed Models (GAMMs) and information-theoretic methods were used to examine how growth rates varied with size, age and sex, and across and within islands in relation to site-specific prey availability, lizard population density and inbreeding coefficients. Growth trajectories differed significantly with size and between sexes, indicating different energy allocation tactics and overall costs associated with reproduction. This leads to disparities in maximum body sizes and longevity. Spatial variation in growth was strongly supported by a curvilinear density-dependent growth model with highest growth rates occurring at intermediate population densities. Sex-specific trade-offs in growth underpin key differences in Komodo dragon life-history including evidence for high costs of reproduction in females. Further, inverse density-dependent growth may have profound effects on individual and population level processes that influence the demography of this species.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population density, Squamata, Komodo dragon, Lizard, Dragon, Monitor lizard


A central goal of population ecology is to identify the factors that regulate population growth. Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in eastern North America re-colonize the breeding range over several generations that result in population densities that vary across space and time during the breeding season. We used laboratory experiments to measure the strength of density-dependent intraspecific competition on egg laying rate and larval survival and then applied our results to density estimates of wild monarch populations to model the strength of density dependence during the breeding season. Egg laying rates did not change with density but larvae at high densities were smaller, had lower survival, and weighed less as adults compared to lower densities. Using mean larval densities from field surveys resulted in conservative estimates of density-dependent population reduction that varied between breeding regions and different phases of the breeding season. Our results suggest the highest levels of population reduction due to density-dependent intraspecific competition occur early in the breeding season in the southern portion of the breeding range. However, we also found that the strength of density dependence could be almost five times higher depending on how many life-stages were used as part of field estimates. Our study is the first to link experimental results of a density-dependent reduction in vital rates to observed monarch densities in the wild and show that the effects of density dependent competition in monarchs varies across space and time, providing valuable information for developing robust, year-round population models in this migratory organism.

Concepts: Biology, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Population density, Experiment, Danaus, Jan Krzysztof Kluk


The increase in Eurasian otter Lutra lutra populations in their natural range and recolonization processes are recently observed in several European countries. We address the process of otter recolonization and habitat utilization in Central Poland over 14 years. Field surveys in 1998 and 2007 documented increase in occurrence of the species. The frequency of positive sites denoted 15 % in 1993, 38 % in 1998, and 89 % in 2007. Otter occurrence at study sites was positively affected by river width while negatively affected by presence of buildings at the site and river regulation. During the most intensive colonization process in the 1990s, the habitat preferences of the otter did not change. However, the sites inhabited by otters after 1998 were characterized by lower river width and tree cover and were more often located on regulated river sections, suggesting change in habitat tolerance during expansion. The otter abundance in transformed habitats is a result of increasing population numbers and the necessity to inhabit suboptimal sections of watercourses. Thus, it seems that presence-absence data for otter populations cannot be considered a reliable indicator of habitat quality, being depended of the population density.

Concepts: Population, Population density, Otters, Mustelidae, Otter, European Otter


BACKGROUND: Geographic variables play an important role in the study of epidemics. The role of one such variable, population density, in the spread of influenza is controversial. Prior studies have tested for such a role using arbitrary thresholds for population density above or below which places are hypothesized to have higher or lower mortality. The results of such studies are mixed. The objective of this study is to estimate, rather than assume, a threshold level of population density that separates low-density regions from high-density regions on the basis of population loss during an influenza pandemic. We study the case of the influenza pandemic of 1918–19 in India, where over 15 million people died in the short span of less than one year. METHODS: Using data from six censuses for 199 districts of India (n=1194), the country with the largest number of deaths from the influenza of 1918–19, we use a sample-splitting method embedded within a population growth model that explicitly quantifies population loss from the pandemic to estimate a threshold level of population density that separates low-density districts from high-density districts. RESULTS: The results demonstrate a threshold level of population density of 175 people per square mile. A concurrent finding is that districts on the low side of the threshold experienced rates of population loss (3.72%) that were lower than districts on the high side of the threshold (4.69%). CONCLUSIONS: This paper introduces a useful analytic tool to the health geographic literature. It illustrates an application of the tool to demonstrate that it can be useful for pandemic awareness and preparedness efforts. Specifically, it estimates a level of population density above which policies to socially distance, redistribute or quarantine populations are likely to be more effective than they are for areas with population densities that lie below the threshold.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Geography, Population density, Pandemic, World population, Overpopulation


How bats adapt their sonar behavior to accommodate the noisiness of a crowded day roost is a mystery. Some bats change their pulse acoustics to enhance the distinction between theirs and another bat’s echoes, but additional mechanisms are needed to explain the bat sonar system’s exceptional resilience to jamming by conspecifics. Variable pulse repetition rate strategies offer one potential solution to this dynamic problem, but precisely how changes in pulse rate could improve sonar performance in social settings is unclear. Here we show that bats decrease their emission rates as population density increases, following a pattern that reflects a cumulative mutual suppression of each other’s pulse emissions. Playback of artificially-generated echolocation pulses similarly slowed emission rates, demonstrating that suppression was mediated by hearing the pulses of other bats. Slower emission rates did not support an antiphonal emission strategy but did reduce the relative proportion of emitted pulses that overlapped with another bat’s emissions, reducing the relative rate of mutual interference. The prevalence of acoustic interferences occurring amongst bats was empirically determined to be a linear function of population density and mean emission rates. Consequently as group size increased, small reductions in emission rates spread across the group partially mitigated the increase in interference rate. Drawing on lessons learned from communications networking theory we show how modest decreases in pulse emission rates can significantly increase the net information throughput of the shared acoustic space, thereby improving sonar efficiency for all individuals in a group. We propose that an automated acoustic suppression of pulse emissions triggered by bats hearing each other’s emissions dynamically optimizes sonar efficiency for the entire group.

Concepts: Function, Pulse, Population density, Ultrasound, Animal echolocation, Sound, Bat, Sonar


Savannas once constituted the range of many species that human encroachment has now reduced to a fraction of their former distribution. Many survive only in protected areas. Poaching reduces the savanna elephant, even where protected, likely to the detriment of savanna ecosystems. While resources go into estimating elephant populations, an ecological benchmark by which to assess counts is lacking. Knowing how many elephants there are and how many poachers kill is important, but on their own, such data lack context. We collated savanna elephant count data from 73 protected areas across the continent estimated to hold ~50% of Africa’s elephants and extracted densities from 18 broadly stable population time series. We modeled these densities using primary productivity, water availability, and an index of poaching as predictors. We then used the model to predict stable densities given current conditions and poaching for all 73 populations. Next, to generate ecological benchmarks, we predicted such densities for a scenario of zero poaching. Where historical data are available, they corroborate or exceed benchmarks. According to recent counts, collectively, the 73 savanna elephant populations are at 75% of the size predicted based on current conditions and poaching levels. However, populations are at <25% of ecological benchmarks given a scenario of zero poaching (~967,000)-a total deficit of ~730,000 elephants. Populations in 30% of the 73 protected areas were <5% of their benchmarks, and the median current density as a percentage of ecological benchmark across protected areas was just 13%. The ecological context provided by these benchmark values, in conjunction with ongoing census projects, allow efficient targeting of conservation efforts.

Concepts: Density, Prediction, Ecosystem, Population density, Hunting, Elephant, Elephants, Savanna


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


The sustainability of future water resources is of paramount importance and is affected by many factors, including population, wealth and climate. Inherent in current methods to estimate these factors in the future is the uncertainty of their prediction. In this study, we integrate a large ensemble of scenarios-internally consistent across economics, emissions, climate, and population-to develop a risk portfolio of water stress over a large portion of Asia that includes China, India, and Mainland Southeast Asia in a future with unconstrained emissions. We isolate the effects of socioeconomic growth from the effects of climate change in order to identify the primary drivers of stress on water resources. We find that water needs related to socioeconomic changes, which are currently small, are likely to increase considerably in the future, often overshadowing the effect of climate change on levels of water stress. As a result, there is a high risk of severe water stress in densely populated watersheds by 2050, compared to recent history. There is strong evidence to suggest that, in the absence of autonomous adaptation or societal response, a much larger portion of the region’s population will live in water-stressed regions in the near future. Tools and studies such as these can effectively investigate large-scale system sensitivities and can be useful in engaging and informing decision makers.

Concepts: Southeast Asia, Population, Population ecology, Effect, Futurology, Future, Population density, Forecasting


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