Environmental stochasticity and density dependence in animal population models
Samaranayaka, Ariyapala Hattasinge (Ari)
Biological management of populations plays an indispensable role in all areas of population biology. In deciding between possible management options, one of the most important pieces of information required by population managers is the likely population status under possible management actions. Population dynamic models are the basic tool used in deriving this information. These models elucidate the complex processes underlying the population dynamics, and address the possible consequences/merits of management actions. These models are needed to guide the population towards desired/chosen management goals, and therefore allow managers to make informed decisions between alternative management actions. The reliability that can be placed on inferences drawn from a model about the fate of a population is undoubtedly dependent on how realistically the model represents the dynamic process of the population. The realistic representation of population characteristics in models has proved to be somewhat of a thorn in the side of population biologists. This thesis focuses in particular on ways to represent environmental stochasticity and density dependence in population models. Various approaches that are used in building environmental stochasticity into population models are reviewed. The most common approach represents the environmental variation by changes to demographic parameters that are assumed to follow a simple statistical distribution. For this purpose, a distribution is often selected on the basis of expert opinion, previous practice, and convenience. This thesis assesses the effect of this subjective choice of distribution on the model predictions, and develops some objective criteria for that selection based on ecological and statistical acceptability. The more commonly used distributions are compared as to their suitability, and some recommendations are made. Density dependence is usually represented in population models by specifying one or more of the vital rates as a function of population density. For a number of reasons, a population-specific function cannot usually be selected based on data. The thesis develops some ecologically-motivated criteria for identifying possible function(s) that could be used for a given population by matching functional properties to population characteristics when they are known. It also identifies a series of properties that should be present in a general function which could be suitable for modelling a population when relevant population characteristics are unknown. The suitability of functions that are commonly chosen for such purposes is assessed on this basis. I also evaluate the effect of the choice of a function on the resulting population trajectories. The case where the density dependence of one demographic rate is influenced by the density dependence of another is considered in some detail, as in some situations it can be modelled with little information in a relatively function-insensitive way. The findings of this research will help in embedding characteristics of animal populations into population dynamics models more realistically. Even though the findings are presented in the context of slow-growing long-lived animal populations, they are more generally applicable in all areas of biological management.
Advisor: Fletcher, David
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Mathematics and Statistics
Research Type: Thesis