The Dynamics of Population Declines
By Claire Asher, on 2 July 2013
Widespread declines in wildlife populations are a major concern, but global and regional targets to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss have so far not been met. Conservation practitioners are faced with an increasingly difficult task of balancing limited funding against increasing human pressures on wild populations. Methods for identifying detrimental human activities, identifying and classifying declines and prioritising species for conservation interventions are critical to ensure conservation efforts are invested wisely over the coming decades. Researchers at the Institute of Zoology (IOZ), Imperial College London and GEE have been working towards developing innovative methods for identifying pressures and determining conservation priorities in wild mammal populations.
Theoretical work suggests that different human pressures may result in different types of population decline, leaving a fingerprint of anthropogenic stress on the history of a population. Human activity might cause a constant pressure, or one that changes in proportion to the abundance of a species. Pressures may become more extreme as populations become smaller, for example when the value of a species to hunters increases as it becomes rarer. By contrast, a constant hunting effort would create a declining pressure over time, as individuals become increasingly difficult to find. Previous work by CBER’s Georgina Mace has suggested that the shape of the population decline curve observed may be characteristic of certain types of human pressure. A recent paper in Ecology and Evolution by IOZ’s Martina Di Fonzo, and Ben Collen and Georgina Mace from GEE, uses computer simulations and long-term monitoring data from nearly 60 species of mammal worldwide to test these theoretical predictions.
Taking a number of biological traits into account, such as life-history speed (e.g. generation time) and the carrying capacity of the environment, Di Fonzo, Collen and Mace (2013) simulated population size trends under a number of different types of human pressure. They looked at threats that are constant, increase or decrease in intensity as the population declines, and threats that act in proportion to the population size or that remain fixed as population size changes. They then statistically characterised the shape of the resulting curves using three different statistical models (linear, exponential, quadratic) and different curve shapes (concave or convex). This produced mixed results. Some types of pressure consistently produced the same type of decline curve regardless of the biological and environmental characteristics of the population, but others were more strongly influenced by generation length and habitat carrying capacity. This makes sense, since populations with a short generation time are likely to be better able to cope with and recover from human pressure. For most types of pressure, however, some tell-tale signs were usually identifiable. For example, pressures that are proportional to population size and increase over time tended to produce convex declines, whilst proportional pressure that decreases over time is more likely to produce a concave curve.
From Simulation to the Wild
That’s all very well and good, but how well does the simulated data match up to real-world wildlife populations? Using data from the Living Planet Index, the authors attempted to characterise the shape of real population declines and compared the model predictions with data about real human pressures impacting on these populations. Across 124 populations for 57 different species of mammal, they found that populations were most commonly experiencing concave declines, suggesting human pressures that are in proportion to population size, but decrease in intensity over time. There was some association between curve-shape and the actual sources of pressure, with exponential concave declines being associated with habitats suffering from exploitation, habitat loss, invasive species and pollution, and quadratic convex declines being more characteristic of disease-affected populations. However, most populations were subject to multiple human-pressures simultaneously, which may have partly obscured the relationship predicted by theory.
Population decline curves may not enable us to identify specifically which threats are affecting a population, however they can reveal important details of how those pressures are changing over time. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list attempts to categorise species’ conservation status. Currently, the Red List includes population size decline when assessing conservation status, however this does not take into account whether those declines are accelerating or decelerating over time. Incorporating information about the shape of the decline curve can provide important insights for conservation – species experiencing accelerating declines may be prioritised when determining how to use limited funding. Population-level data can highlight the impact of human activities more rapidly than studying species-level information, as populations are likely to show more rapid responses to human change, and may act as an early warning of longer-term species decline.
The dynamics of real populations are complex, and species’ biological traits in combination with multiple human pressures acting on a population simultaneously can mean that reality does not always match perfectly with theory. However, studying the shape of population declines can reveal characteristics of the pressure being exerted on the population, may provide an early-warning system for species-level declines, and can be used to inform conservation priorities. This relatively simple method for assessing the type of decline a population is experiencing can provide valuable information to conservationists about which types of pressures are most influential, and how to act to prevent extinction.
This project was made possible by funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)