Wildlife Population Dynamics Natural Resources

I. Population Dynamics:

A. Birth and Death Rates: The theoretical maximum rate of growth of a population is limited by factors that restrict the reproduction and survival of individuals. These factors are generally grouped into two broad categories.

1. Density Independent Factors: anything that limits the growth of a population irrespective of the number of individuals within the population.

a. Natural Forces: includes fire, storms, flooding, tornadoes, volcanoes, etc.
b. Weather Changes: annual plants and insects are held in check by periodic cold weather in temperate climates. In the tropics, rare freezes may severely deplete some insects, such as exotic butterflies.
c. Human Activities: heated water discharged from power plants may impact almost 100% mortality on fish. Chemicals accidentally or intentionally released into the environment also affect populations.
d. Habitat Destruction: roadways, farms, suburbs, factories, cities, and villages all obliterate vital habitat. Often destroying all of the species that once lived there.

2. Density Dependent Factors: the factors influencing the birth and death rate of a population depends on the density or the number of individuals in a given area. Ecologists recognize four major density dependent factors.

a. Predation: some organisms must hunt and kill others for nutritional needs. Predators may be strict meat eaters or carnivores; herbivores that eat vegetation only; or omnivores, eaters of both plants and animals.

i. As the population of a prey species increases, the percentage of organisms killed by predators increases. Individuals become easier to find and attack.

ii. Increased competition among prey individuals often weakens some individuals making it easier to prey upon them.

iii. Some individuals may be pushed into less suitable habitat resulting in weakening or susceptibility to disease.

iv. Predators tend to shift their attention to more concentrated prey.

b. Competition: operates at two levels; within a given species and between species.

i. Plants experience limitations of sunlight, soil nutrients, and water; plants are weakened and may be exposed to insects or pathogens (disease causing organisms).

ii. Competition among animals intensifies struggles for cover, water, food, and breeding sites and space. The physically unfit are particularly affected. If organisms are forced to colonize poorer habitats, death from starvation, disease or predation may occur.

c. Parasitism: organisms that feed on the tissues of other organisms are more easily transmitted among individuals when the population density is high. Many parasites are passed through the ingestion of plant or animal matter. In sites of concentrated density, the proportion of tainted vegetation eaten by animals increases.
d. Disease: populations may be severely depleted by disease because the transportation distance between carriers is reduced. Pathogens that move through water, air, or skin do not have far to go to reach a suitable host.

3. Population Dynamics: the changes that occur in populations are a result of many factors operating simultaneously. The study of population dynamics is a key tool in wildlife management that utilizes the following concepts.

a. S-Curve: a species population will grow in a characteristic way. The plot of this growth has four distinct phases.

i. Establishment: a population disperses to a vacant habitat

ii. Rapid Growth: a population increases slowly at first and then rapidly multiplies, taking advantage of unlimited resources.

iii. Growth Deceleration: growth slows as resources become limiting.

iv. Equilibrium: a population becomes well established and other factors such as competition and predation limit their size. Population fluctuations and other ‘noise’ decline.

b. Carrying Capacity: the number of organisms a habitat can support. The carrying capacity is a consequence of density dependent factors; food, cover, and breeding sites become limited and population growth is inhibited; birth and death rates fluctuate but the overall growth rate becomes constant.

c. Maximum Sustainable Yield: the greatest yield possible that does not harm a populations long term survival by upsetting the ecological balance of an ecosystem. This is generally achieved between the explosion and decelerating phase of an S-Curve. If a population is harvested below fifty percent of its carrying capacity, it may not recover.

d. Irruptive Populations: a sudden increase in population size may occur after a period of unusually favorable weather that provides food or exceptional offspring survival. A population may exceed it’s carrying capacity and then plummet dramatically. This often results in severe damage to an ecosystem.

e. Cyclic Populations: Typically 3-4 year cycles of population peaks followed by subsequent scarcity. Fluctuations occur proportionally to changes in food supply, cover availability, or exposure to predators.

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