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 Both (a) and (b) graphs plot population size versus time. In graph (a), exponential growth results in a curve that gets increasingly steep, resulting in a J-shape. In graph (b), logistic growth results in a curve that gets increasingly steep, then levels off when the carrying capacity is reached, resulting in an S-shape.
When resources are unlimited, populations exhibit (a) exponential growth, shown in a J-shaped curve. When resources are limited, populations exhibit (b) logistic growth. In logistic growth, population expansion decreases as resources become scarce, and it levels off when the carrying capacity of the environment is reached. The logistic growth curve is S-shaped.

Role of intraspecific competition

The logistic model assumes that every individual within a population will have equal access to resources and, thus, an equal chance for survival. For plants, the amount of water, sunlight, nutrients, and space to grow are the important resources, whereas in animals, important resources include food, water, shelter, nesting space, and mates.

In the real world, phenotypic variation among individuals within a population means that some individuals will be better adapted to their environment than others. The resulting competition for resources among population members of the same species is termed intraspecific competition    . Intraspecific competition may not affect populations that are well below their carrying capacity, as resources are plentiful and all individuals can obtain what they need. However, as population size increases, this competition intensifies. In addition, the accumulation of waste products can reduce carrying capacity in an environment.

Examples of logistic growth

Yeast, a microscopic fungus used to make bread and alcoholic beverages, exhibits the classical S-shaped curve when grown in a test tube ( [link] a ). Its growth levels off as the population depletes the nutrients that are necessary for its growth. In the real world, however, there are variations to this idealized curve. Examples in wild populations include sheep and harbor seals ( [link] b ). In both examples, the population size exceeds the carrying capacity for short periods of time and then falls below the carrying capacity afterwards. This fluctuation in population size continues to occur as the population oscillates around its carrying capacity. Still, even with this oscillation, the logistic model is confirmed.

Art connection

 Graph (a) plots amount of yeast versus time of growth in hours. The curve rises steeply, and then plateaus at the carrying capacity. Data points tightly follow the curve. Graph (b) plots the number of harbor seals versus time in years. Again, the curve rises steeply then plateaus at the carrying capacity, but this time there is much more scatter in the data. A micrograph of yeast cells, which are oval in shape, and a photo of a harbor seal are shown.
(a) Yeast grown in ideal conditions in a test tube shows a classical S-shaped logistic growth curve, whereas (b) a natural population of seals shows real-world fluctuation. The yeast is visualized using differential interference contrast light micrography. (credit a: scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

If the major food source of seals declines due to pollution or overfishing, which of the following would likely occur?

  1. The carrying capacity of seals would decrease, as would the seal population.
  2. The carrying capacity of seals would decrease, but the seal population would remain the same.
  3. The number of seal deaths would increase, but the number of births would also increase, so the population size would remain the same.
  4. The carrying capacity of seals would remain the same, but the population of seals would decrease.

Population dynamics and regulation

The logistic model of population growth, while valid in many natural populations and a useful model, is a simplification of real-world population dynamics. Implicit in the model is that the carrying capacity of the environment does not change, which is not the case. The carrying capacity varies annually. For example, some summers are hot and dry whereas others are cold and wet; in many areas, the carrying capacity during the winter is much lower than it is during the summer. Also, natural events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and fires can alter an environment and hence its carrying capacity. Additionally, populations do not usually exist in isolation. They share the environment with other species, competing with them for the same resources (interspecific competition). These factors are also important to understanding how a specific population will grow.

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