Population cycle

A population cycle in zoology is a phenomenon where populations rise and fall over a predictable period of time. There are some species where population numbers have reasonably predictable patterns of change although the full reasons for population cycles is one of the major unsolved ecological problems. There are a number of factors which influence population change such as availability of food, predators, diseases and climate.

Occurrence in mammal populations

Olaus Magnus, the Archbishop of Uppsala in central Sweden, identified that species of northern rodents had periodic peaks in population and published two reports on the subject in the middle of the 16th century.

In North America, the phenomenon was identified in populations of the snowshoe hare. In 1865, trappers with the Hudson's Bay Company were catching plenty of animals. By 1870, they were catching very few. It was finally identified that the cycle of high and low catches ran over approximately a ten-year period.

The most well known example of creatures which have a population cycle is the lemming. The biologist Charles Elton first identified in 1924 that the lemming had regular cycles of population growth and decline. When their population outgrows the resources of their habitat, lemmings migrate, although contrary to popular myth, they do not jump into the sea.

Other species

While the phenomenon is often associated with rodents, it does occur in other species such as the ruffed grouse. There are other species which have irregular population explosions such as grasshoppers where overpopulation results in locust swarms in Africa and Australia.

Relationships between predators and prey

There is also an interaction between prey with periodic cycles and predators. As the population expands, there is more food available for predators. As it contracts, there is less food available for predators, putting pressure on their population numbers.


Each population cycle tends to last as long as a species' life expectancy (i.e. Lemmings, Rabbits and Locusts)

See also


Online references


Creatures! High School interactive simulation program that implements an agent based simulation of grass, rabbits and foxes.

Other references

  • Encyclopædia Britannica Online 25 August 2005 "Population Ecology" article section on Population Cycles
  • Errki Korpimaki and Charles J Krebs "Predation and Population Cycles of Small Mammals" Bioscience November 1996 Volume 46, Number 10

Further reading

  • Alan Berryman, Population Cycles, Oxford University Press US, 2002 ISBN 0-19-514098-2
Abiotic component

In biology and ecology, abiotic components or abiotic factors are non-living chemical and physical parts of the environment that affect living organisms and the functioning of ecosystems. Abiotic factors and the phenomena associated with them underpin all biology.

Abiotic components include physical conditions and non-living resources that affect living organisms in terms of growth, maintenance, and reproduction. Resources are distinguished as substances or objects in the environment required by one organism and consumed or otherwise made unavailable for use by other organisms.

Component degradation of a substance occurs by chemical or physical processes, e.g. hydrolysis. All non-living components of an ecosystem, such as atmospheric conditions and water resources, are called abiotic components.


Bacterivores are free-living, generally heterotrophic organisms, exclusively microscopic, which obtain energy and nutrients primarily or entirely from the consumption of bacteria. Many species of amoeba are bacterivores, as well as other types of protozoans. Commonly, all species of bacteria will be prey, but spores of some species, such as Clostridium perfringens, will never be prey, because of their cellular attributes.


A copiotroph is an organism found in environments rich in nutrients, particularly carbon. They are the opposite to oligotrophs, which survive in much lower carbon concentrations.

Copiotrophic organisms tend to grow in high organic substrate conditions. For example, copiotrophic organisms grow in Sewage lagoons. They grow in organic substrate conditions up to 100x higher than oligotrophs.


Decomposers are organisms that break down dead or decaying organisms, and in doing so, they carry out the natural process of decomposition. Like herbivores and predators, decomposers are heterotrophic, meaning that they use organic substrates to get their energy, carbon and nutrients for growth and development. While the terms decomposer and detritivore are often interchangeably used, detritivores must ingest and digest dead matter via internal processes while decomposers can directly absorb nutrients through chemical and biological processes hence breaking down matter without ingesting it. Thus, invertebrates such as earthworms, woodlice, and sea cucumbers are technically detritivores, not decomposers, since they must ingest nutrients and are unable to absorb them externally.

Dominance (ecology)

Ecological dominance is the degree to which a taxon is more numerous than its competitors in an ecological community, or makes up more of the biomass.

Most ecological communities are defined by their dominant species.

In many examples of wet woodland in western Europe, the dominant tree is alder (Alnus glutinosa).

In temperate bogs, the dominant vegetation is usually species of Sphagnum moss.

Tidal swamps in the tropics are usually dominated by species of mangrove (Rhizophoraceae)

Some sea floor communities are dominated by brittle stars.

Exposed rocky shorelines are dominated by sessile organisms such as barnacles and limpets.

Feeding frenzy

In ecology, a feeding frenzy occurs when predators are overwhelmed by the amount of prey available. For example, a large school of fish can cause nearby sharks, such as the lemon shark, to enter into a feeding frenzy. This can cause the sharks to go wild, biting anything that moves, including each other or anything else within biting range. Another functional explanation for feeding frenzy is competition amongst predators. This term is most often used when referring to sharks or piranhas. It has also been used as a term within journalism.

Food chain

A food chain is a linear network of links in a food web starting from producer organisms (such as grass or trees which use radiation from the Sun to make their food) and ending at apex predator species (like grizzly bears or killer whales), detritivores (like earthworms or woodlice), or decomposer species (such as fungi or bacteria). A food chain also shows how the organisms are related with each other by the food they eat. Each level of a food chain represents a different trophic level. A food chain differs from a food web, because the complex network of different animals' feeding relations are aggregated and the chain only follows a direct, linear pathway of one animal at a time. Natural interconnections between food chains make it a food web.

A common metric used to the quantify food web trophic structure is food chain length. In its simplest form, the length of a chain is the number of links between a trophic consumer and the base of the web and the mean chain length of an entire web is the arithmetic average of the lengths of all chains in a food web.Many food webs have a keystone species (Such as Sharks) . A keystone species is a species that has a large impact on the surrounding environment and can directly affect the food chain. If this keystone species dies off it can set the entire food chain off balance. Keystone species keep herbivores from depleting all of the foliage in their environment and preventing a mass extinction.Food chains were first introduced by the Arab scientist and philosopher Al-Jahiz in the 10th century and later popularized in a book published in 1927 by Charles Elton, which also introduced the food web concept.


A lithoautotroph or chemolithoautotroph is a microbe which derives energy from reduced compounds of mineral origin. Lithoautotrophs are a type of lithotrophs with autotrophic metabolic pathways. Lithoautotrophs are exclusively microbes; macrofauna do not possess the capability to use mineral sources of energy. Most lithoautotrophs belong to the domain Bacteria, while some belong to the domain Archaea. For lithoautotrophic bacteria, only inorganic molecules can be used as energy sources. The term "Lithotroph" is from Greek lithos (λίθος) meaning "rock" and trōphos (τροφοσ) meaning "consumer"; literally, it may be read "eaters of rock". Many lithoautotrophs are extremophiles, but this is not universally so.

Lithoautotrophs are extremely specific in using their energy source. Thus, despite the diversity in using inorganic molecules in order to obtain energy that lithoautotrophs exhibit as a group, one particular lithoautotroph would use only one type of inorganic molecule to get its energy.

Mesotrophic soil

Mesotrophic soils are soils with a moderate inherent fertility. An indicator of soil fertility is its base status, which is expressed as a ratio relating the major nutrient cations (calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium) found there to the soil's clay percentage. This is commonly expressed in hundredths of a mole of cations per kilogram of clay, i.e. cmol (+) kg−1 clay.


A mycotroph is a plant that gets all or part of its carbon, water, or nutrient supply through symbiotic association with fungi. The term can refer to plants that engage in either of two distinct symbioses with fungi:

Many mycotrophs have a mutualistic association with fungi in any of several forms of mycorrhiza. The majority of plant species are mycotrophic in this sense. Examples include Burmanniaceae.

Some mycotrophs are parasitic upon fungi in an association known as myco-heterotrophy.


An organotroph is an organism that obtains hydrogen or electrons from organic substrates. This term is used in microbiology to classify and describe organisms based on how they obtain electrons for their respiration processes. Some organotrophs such as animals and many bacteria, are also heterotrophs. Organotrophs can be either anaerobic or aerobic.

Antonym: Lithotroph, Adjective: Organotrophic.


Overpopulation occurs when a species' population exceeds the carrying capacity of its ecological niche. It can result from an increase in births (fertility rate), a decline in the mortality rate, an increase in immigration, or an unsustainable biome and depletion of resources. When overpopulation occurs, individuals limit available resources to survive.

The change in number of individuals per unit area in a given locality is an important variable that has a significant impact on the entire ecosystem.


A planktivore is an aquatic organism that feeds on planktonic food, including zooplankton and phytoplankton.

Population dynamics

Population dynamics is the branch of life sciences that studies the size and age composition of populations as dynamical systems, and the biological and environmental processes driving them (such as birth and death rates, and by immigration and emigration). Example scenarios are ageing populations, population growth, or population decline.

Population dynamics of fisheries

A fishery is an area with an associated fish or aquatic population which is harvested for its commercial or recreational value. Fisheries can be wild or farmed. Population dynamics describes the ways in which a given population grows and shrinks over time, as controlled by birth, death, and migration. It is the basis for understanding changing fishery patterns and issues such as habitat destruction, predation and optimal harvesting rates. The population dynamics of fisheries is used by fisheries scientists to determine sustainable yields.The basic accounting relation for population dynamics is the BIDE (Birth, Immigration, Death, Emigration) model, shown as:

N1 = N0 + B − D + I − Ewhere N1 is the number of individuals at time 1, N0 is the number of individuals at time 0, B is the number of individuals born, D the number that died, I the number that immigrated, and E the number that emigrated between time 0 and time 1. While immigration and emigration can be present in wild fisheries, they are usually not measured.

A fishery population is affected by three dynamic rate functions:

Birth rate or recruitment. Recruitment means reaching a certain size or reproductive stage. With fisheries, recruitment usually refers to the age a fish can be caught and counted in nets.

Growth rate. This measures the growth of individuals in size and length. This is important in fisheries where the population is often measured in terms of biomass.

Mortality. This includes harvest mortality and natural mortality. Natural mortality includes non-human predation, disease and old age.If these rates are measured over different time intervals, the harvestable surplus of a fishery can be determined. The harvestable surplus is the number of individuals that can be harvested from the population without affecting long term stability (average population size). The harvest within the harvestable surplus is called compensatory mortality, where the harvest deaths are substituting for the deaths that would otherwise occur naturally. Harvest beyond that is additive mortality, harvest in addition to all the animals that would have died naturally.

Care is needed when applying population dynamics to real world fisheries. Over-simplistic modelling of fisheries has resulted in the collapse of key stocks.

Recruitment (biology)

In biology, especially marine biology, recruitment occurs when a juvenile organism joins a population, whether by birth or immigration, usually at a stage whereby the organisms are settled and able to be detected by an observer.There are two types of recruitment: closed and open.In the study of fisheries, recruitment is "the number of fish surviving to enter the fishery or to some life history stage such as settlement or maturity".

Relative abundance distribution

In the field of ecology, the relative abundance distribution (RAD) or species abundance distribution describes the relationship between the number of species observed in a field study as a function of their observed abundance. The graphs obtained in this manner are typically fitted to a Zipf–Mandelbrot law, the exponent of which serves as an index of biodiversity in the ecosystem under study.

Saprotrophic nutrition

Saprotrophic nutrition or lysotrophic nutrition is a process of chemoheterotrophic extracellular digestion involved in the processing of decayed (dead or waste) organic matter. It occurs in saprotrophs, and is most often associated with fungi (for example Mucor) and soil bacteria. Saprotrophic microscopic fungi are sometimes called saprobes; saprotrophic plants or bacterial flora are called saprophytes (sapro- + -phyte, "rotten material" + "plant"), though it is now believed that all plants previously thought to be saprotrophic are in fact parasites of microscopic fungi or other plants. The process is most often facilitated through the active transport of such materials through endocytosis within the internal mycelium and its constituent hyphae.Various word roots relating to decayed matter (detritus, sapro-), eating and nutrition (-vore, -phage), and plants or life forms (-phyte, -obe) produce various terms, such as detritivore, detritophage, saprotroph, saprophyte, saprophage, and saprobe; their meanings overlap, although technical distinctions (based on physiologic mechanisms) narrow the senses. For example, usage distinctions can be made based on macroscopic swallowing of detritus (as an earthworm does) versus microscopic lysis of detritus (as a mushroom does).

A facultative saprophyte appears on stressed or dying plants and may combine with the live pathogens..

Snowshoe hare

The snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), also called the varying hare, or snowshoe rabbit, is a species of hare found in North America. It has the name "snowshoe" because of the large size of its hind feet. The animal's feet prevent it from sinking into the snow when it hops and walks. Its feet also have fur on the soles to protect it from freezing temperatures.

For camouflage, its fur turns white during the winter and rusty brown during the summer. Its flanks are white year-round. The snowshoe hare is also distinguishable by the black tufts of fur on the edge of its ears. Its ears are shorter than those of most other hares.

In summer, it feeds on plants such as grass, ferns, and leaves; in winter, it eats twigs, the bark from trees, and buds from flowers and plants and, similar to the Arctic hare, has been known to occasionally eat dead animals. It can sometimes be seen feeding in small groups. This animal is mainly active at night and does not hibernate. The snowshoe hare may have up to four litters in a year, which average three to eight young. Males compete for females, and females may breed with several males.

A major predator of the snowshoe hare is the Canadian lynx. Historical records of animals caught by fur hunters over hundreds of years show the lynx and hare numbers rising and falling in a cycle, which has made the hare known to biology students worldwide as a case study of the relationship between numbers of predators and their prey.

Food webs
Example webs
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components


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