On the Use of “Density-dependent” in the Ecological Literature

The words ‘density-dependent’ or ‘density dependence’ appear very frequently in the ecological literature, and I write this blog in a plea to never use these words unless you have a very strong definition attached to them. If you have a spare day, count how many times these words appear in a single recent issue of Ecology or the Journal of Animal Ecology and you will get a dose of my dismay. In the Web of Science a search for these words in a general ecology context gives about 1300 papers using these words since 2010, or approximately 1 paper per day.

There is an extensive literature on what density dependence means. In the modeling world, the definition is simple and can be found in every introductory ecology textbook. But it is the usage of the words ‘density-dependence’ in the real world that I want to discuss in this blog.

The concept can be quite meaningless, as Murray (1982) pointed out so many years ago. At its most modest extreme, it only says that, sooner or later, something happens when a population gets too large. Everyone could agree with that simple definition. But if you want to understand or manage population changes, you will need something much more specific. More specific might mean to plot a regression of some demographic variable with population density on the X axis. As Don Strong (1986) pointed out long ago a more typical result is density-vagueness. So if and when you write about a density-dependent relationship, at least determine how well the data fit a straight or curved line, and if the correlation coefficient is 0.3 or less you should get concerned that density has little to do with your demographic variable. If you wish to understand population dynamics, you will need to understand mechanisms and population density is not a mechanism.

Often the term density-dependent is used as a shorthand to indicate that some measured variable such as the amount of item X in the diet is related to population density. In most of these cases it is more appropriate to say that item X is statistically related to population density, and avoid all the baggage associated with the original term. Too often statements are made about mortality process X being ‘inversely density dependent’ or ‘directly density dependent’ with no data that supports such a strong conclusion.

So if there is a simple message here it is only that when you write ‘density-dependent’ in your manuscript, see if is related to the population regulation concept or if it is a simple statistical statement that is better described in simple statistical language. In both cases evaluate the strength of the evidence.

Ecology is plagued with imprecise words that can mean almost anything if they are not specified clearly, so statements about ‘biodiversity’, ‘ecosystems’, ‘resilience’, ‘diversity’, ‘metapopulations’, and ‘competition’ are fine to use so long as you indicate exactly what the operational meaning of the word entails. ‘Density-dependence’ is one of these slippery words best avoided unless you have some clear mechanism or process in mind.

Murray, B.G., Jr. (1982) On the meaning of density dependence. Oecologia, 53, 370-373.

Strong, D.R. (1986) Density-vague population change. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 1, 39-42.

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