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. Each of these measures, especially birth rates, may be affected by the population characteristics described above. For example, a large population size results in a higher birth rate because more potentially reproductive individuals are present. In contrast, a large population size can also result in a higher death rate because of competition, disease, and the accumulation of waste. Similarly, a higher population density or a clumped dispersion pattern results in more potential reproductive encounters between individuals, which can increase birth rate. Lastly, a female-biased sex ratio (the ratio of males to females) or age structure (the proportion of population members at specific age ranges) composed of many individuals of reproductive age can increase birth rates.
In addition, the demographic characteristics of a population can influence how the population grows or declines over time. If birth and death rates are equal, the population remains stable. However, the population size will increase if birth rates exceed death rates; the population will decrease if birth rates are less than death rates. Life expectancy is another important factor; the length of time individuals remain in the population impacts local resources, reproduction, and the overall health of the population. These demographic characteristics are often displayed in the form of a life table.
Life tables provide important information about the life history of an organism. Life tables divide the population into age groups and often sexes, and show how long a member of that group is likely to live. They are modeled after actuarial tables used by the insurance industry for estimating human life expectancy. Life tables may include the probability of individuals dying before their next birthday (i.e., their mortality rate), the percentage of surviving individuals dying at a particular age interval, and their life expectancy at each interval. An example of a life table is shown in Table from a study of Dall mountain sheep, a species native to northwestern North America. Notice that the population is divided into age intervals (column A). The mortality rate (per 1000), shown in column D, is based on the number of individuals dying during the age interval (column B) divided by the number of individuals surviving at the beginning of the interval (Column C), multiplied by 1000.
For example, between ages three and four, 12 individuals die out of the 776 that were remaining from the original 1000 sheep. This number is then multiplied by 1000 to get the mortality rate per thousand.
As can be seen from the mortality rate data (column D), a high death rate occurred when the sheep were between 6 and 12 months old, and then increased even more from 8 to 12 years old, after which there were few survivors. The data indicate that if a sheep in this population were to survive to age one, it could be expected to live another 7.7 years on average, as shown by the life expectancy numbers in column E.
|Life Table of Dall Mountain SheepData Adapted from Edward S. Deevey, Jr., “Life Tables for Natural Populations of Animals,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 22, no. 4 (December 1947): 283-314.|
|Age interval (years)||Number dying in age interval out of 1000 born||Number surviving at beginning of age interval out of 1000 born||Mortality rate per 1000 alive at beginning of age interval||Life expectancy or mean lifetime remaining to those attaining age 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 plotted versus time (usually with data compiled from a life table). These curves allow us to compare the life histories of different populations (Figure). Humans and most primates exhibit a Type I survivorship curve because a high percentage of offspring survive their early and middle years—death occurs predominantly in older individuals. These types of species usually have small numbers of offspring at one time, and they give a high amount of parental care to them to ensure their survival. Birds are an example of an intermediate or Type II survivorship curve because birds die more or less equally at each age interval. These organisms also may have relatively few offspring and provide significant parental care. Trees, marine invertebrates, and most fishes exhibit a Type III survivorship curve because very few of these organisms survive their younger years; however, those that make it to an old age are more likely to survive for a relatively long period of time. Organisms in this category usually have a very large number of offspring, but once they are born, little parental care is provided. Thus these offspring are “on their own” and vulnerable to predation, but their sheer numbers assure the survival of enough individuals to perpetuate the species.