Population Size and Density
The study of any population usually begins by determining how many individuals of a particular species exist, and how closely associated they are with each other. Within a particular habitat, a population can be characterized by its population size (N), the total number of individuals, and its population density, the number of individuals within a specific area or volume. Population size and density are the two main characteristics used to describe and understand populations. For example, populations with more individuals may be more stable than smaller populations based on their genetic variability, and thus their potential to adapt to the environment. Alternatively, a member of a population with low population density (more spread out in the habitat), might have more difficulty finding a mate to reproduce compared to a population of higher density. As is shown in Figure, smaller organisms tend to be more densely distributed than larger organisms.
As this graph shows, population density typically decreases with increasing body size. Why do you think this is the case?
Population Research Methods
The most accurate way to determine population size is to simply count all of the individuals within the habitat. However, this method is often not logistically or economically feasible, especially when studying large habitats. Thus, scientists usually study populations by sampling a representative portion of each habitat and using this data to make inferences about the habitat as a whole. A variety of methods can be used to sample populations to determine their size and density. For immobile organisms such as plants, or for very small and slow-moving organisms, a quadrat may be used (Figure). A quadrat is a way of marking off square areas within a habitat, either by staking out an area with sticks and string, or by the use of a wood, plastic, or metal square placed on the ground. After setting the quadrats, researchers then count the number of individuals that lie within their boundaries. Multiple quadrat samples are performed throughout the habitat at several random locations to estimate the population size and density within the entire habitat. The number and size of quadrat samples depends on the type of organisms under study and other factors, including the density of the organism. For example, if sampling daffodils, a 1 m2 quadrat might be used. With giant redwoods, on the other hand, a larger quadrat of 100 m2 might be employed. This ensures that enough individuals of the species are counted to get an accurate sample that correlates with the habitat, including areas not sampled.
For mobile organisms, such as mammals, birds, or fish, scientists use a technique called mark and recapture. This method involves marking a sample of captured animals in some way (such as tags, bands, paint, or other body markings), and then releasing them back into the environment to allow them to mix with the rest of the population. Later, researchers collect a new sample, including some individuals that are marked (recaptures) and some individuals that are unmarked (Figure).
Using the ratio of marked and unmarked individuals, scientists determine how many individuals are in the sample. From this, calculations are used to estimate the total population size. This method assumes that the larger the population, the lower the percentage of tagged organisms that will be recaptured since they will have mixed with more untagged individuals. For example, if 80 deer are captured, tagged, and released into the forest, and later 100 deer are captured and 20 of them are already marked, we can estimate the population size (N) using the following equation:
Using our example, the population size would be estimated at 400.
Therefore, there are an estimated 400 total individuals in the original population.
There are some limitations to the mark and recapture method. Some animals from the first catch may learn to avoid capture in the second round, thus inflating population estimates. Alternatively, some animals may prefer to be retrapped (especially if a food reward is offered), resulting in an underestimate of population size. Also, some species may be harmed by the marking technique, reducing their survival. A variety of other techniques have been developed, including the electronic tracking of animals tagged with radio transmitters and the use of data from commercial fishing and trapping operations to estimate the size and health of populations and communities.