1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Population Biology Basics

By

Grasshoppers are an example of r-selected animals.

Grasshoppers are an example of r-selected animals.

Photo © Niels Busch / Getty Images.

Populations are groups of individuals belonging to the same species that live in the same region at the same time. Populations, like individual organisms, have unique attributes such as:

  • growth rate
  • age structure
  • sex ratio
  • mortality rate
Populations change over time due to births, deaths, and the dispersal of individuals between separate populations. When resources are plentiful and environmental conditions appropriate, populations can increase rapidly. A population's ability to increase at its maximum rate under optimal conditions is called its biotic potential. Biotic potential is represented the letter r when used in mathematical equations.

In most instances, resources are not unlimited and environmental conditions are not optimal. Climate, food, habitat, water availability, and other factors keep population growth in check due to environmental resistance. The environment can only support a limited number of individuals in a population before some resource runs out or limits the survival of those individuals. The number of individuals that a particular habitat or environment can support is referred to as the carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is represented by the letter K when used in mathematical equations.

Populations can sometimes be categorized by their growth characteristics. Species whose populations increase until they reach the carrying capacity of their environment and then level off are referred to as K-selected species. Species whose populations increase rapidly, often exponetially, quickly filling available environments, are referred to as r-selected species.

Characteristics of K-selected species include:

  • late maturation
  • fewer, larger young
  • longer life spans
  • more parental care
  • intense competition for resources
Characteristics of r-selected species include:
  • early maturation
  • numerous, smaller young
  • shorter life spans
  • less parental care
  • little competition for resources
Some environmental and biological factors can influence a population differently depending on its density. If population density is high, such factors become increasingly limiting on the success of the population. For example, if individuals are cramped in a small area, disease may spread faster than it would if population density were low. Factors that are affected by population density are referred to as density-dependent factors.

There are also density-independent factors which affect populations regardless of their density. Examples of density-independent factors might include a change in temperature such as an extraordinarily cold or dry winter.

Another limiting factor on populations is intraspecific competition which occurs when individuals within a population compete with one another to obtain the same resources. Sometimes intraspecific competition is direct, for example when two individuals vie for the same food, or indirect, for example when one individual's action alters and possibly harms the environment of another individual.

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Animals / Wildlife
  4. More Animal Facts »
  5. Zoology Basics
  6. Ecology
  7. Population Biology Basics

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.