Understanding and Predicting Changes in Population Size

– Exponential and Logistic Mathematical Models vs. Complex Reality[1]

In biology, a population is a group of individuals of the same species that live in the same area at the same time. An example of a population is a flock of whooping cranes that live in a wetland in Texas during the winter and migrate to a wetland in Canada for the summer.

I. Recovery of Endangered Species – Why does it take so long?

An endangered species is a type of animal or plant that is at risk of becoming extinct because of low numbers and environmental threats. For example, due to hunting and habitat loss, the number of wild whooping cranes decreased from roughly 1000 in the late 1800s to about 20in the 1940s.
Beginning in the 1950s, conservation efforts included protection against hunting and creation of wildlife refuges for whooping cranes. Since the 1950s, the surviving population of wild whooping cranes has increased from about 24 to about 290 whooping cranes. /
How tall do you think a whooping
crane is? To learn more and see whooping cranes in action, go to
/ Dates / Average number
whooping cranes / Increase during the previous
20 years
1950-1955 / 24.4
1970-1975 / 53.0 / 28.6
1990-1995 / 138.0 / 72.0
2010-2015 / 290.6 / 152.6

1a. For this population of whooping cranes, did population size increase by the same amount each year from 1950 to 2015? yes___ no ___

1b. On average, when were the increases in population size bigger?

In earlier years ___ In more recent years ___

What evidence supports your conclusion?

2.Describe two different possible reasons why the increases in population size have been bigger in more recent decades.

One cause
Another cause

We will return to an analysis of the recovery of endangered species, but first you will learn how populations grow by analyzing the simple example of bacterial population growth.

3. For the whooping cranes, when population size was small, population growth was slow. Then, as population size increased, the rate of population growth increased. Do you think that this same relationship between bigger population size and faster rate of population growth will be observed for bacteria? Explain why or why not.

II. Bacterial Population Growth and Food Poisoning

A single bacterium is put in a container with plenty of food for bacteria. After 30 minutes the bacterium divides into two bacteria. Then, every 30 minutes, each bacterium in the container divides in two. As a result, population size doubles every 30 minutes.
4. Add to this figure to show how population size will double from
60 minutes to 90 minutes. /

5.Complete this table to show how many bacteria there will be at each time if the number of bacteria doubles every 30 minutes. Fill in the “Increase in # bacteria” blanks.

Time (minutes) / 0 / 30 / 60 / 90 / 120 / 150 / 180 / 210 / 240 / 270 / 300
# Bacteria / 1 / 2

Increase in # bacteria ______

Notice that, for each 30-minute interval,ΔN = N, where

  • ΔN (pronounced delta N) represents the change in the number of bacteria from the beginning to the end of a 30-minute interval
  • N represents the number of bacteria at the beginning of the 30-minute interval

6a. Explain the biological reason why ΔN = Nfor each 30-minute interval.

6b. Why did population size increase slowly at the beginning and more rapidly at later times?
7.Graph the number of bacteria at each time. Connect the points to show the population growth curve.
Notice that, when population size doubles in each time interval, the number of bacteria in the population increases faster and faster as the population gets larger. This kind of population growth is called exponential population growth. /
A population ofSalmonella bacteria can grow in food kept at room temperature.
If you eat food contaminated with Salmonella, a population of Salmonellagrows in your intestines.
If the population of Salmonellain your intestines gets large enough before your immune system has time to kill the bacteria, the large population ofSalmonella will cause diarrhea,abdominal pain and other symptoms /

of food poisoning.

8a. Food that has accidentally been contaminated with a small population of Salmonella is taken from the refrigerator and put on a serving table at room temperature. Person 1 eats a serving of this food right after it is taken from the refrigerator and person 2 eats a serving after the food has been at room temperature for a couple of hours. Which person is more likely to develop food poisoning? person 1 ___ person 2 ___

8b. Explain your reasoning.

9a.If a person eats food contaminated with Salmonella, the person does not get sick immediately. Why is there a delay between when a person eats the contaminated food and when he or she experiences the first symptoms of food poisoning? What is happening during this delay?

9b. Will the delay between eating contaminated food and experiencing the first symptoms of food poisoning be shorter for people who have consumed fewerSalmonella bacteria ___ or

moreSalmonella bacteria ___?

Explain your reasoning.

10. Exponential population growth predicts ever greater increases in the number of bacteria. What is one reason why exponential population growth cannotcontinue forever?

III. Limits on Exponential Population Growth

11. This graph shows trends in population size for a population of bacteria that grew on a piece of tofu. During the first twenty hours, population size increased from a few hundred bacteria to about ten million bacteria. After that, population growth slowed and then stopped. What is one possible reason why this population of bacteria stopped growing? /

This is an example oflogistic population growth. As population size increases, competition for limited resources increases. Increased competition results in increased mortality and/or decreased reproduction, so population growth slows and stops.Thus, in logistic population growth, population size reaches a maximum which is called thecarrying capacity.In contrast, exponential population growth occurs when resources are abundant and there is little or no competition.

12a. Label each curve in this figure as either exponential or logistic population growth.
12b. Notice that the difference between the exponential and logistic population growth curves is small at the beginning and gets bigger at later times. Explain why. /

13. How could you test whether food or water or space is the limiting factor that determines carrying capacity for populations of paramecia growing in tubes in the laboratory? (Paramecia are single cell organisms that live in water and eat bacteria.)

This graph shows the results of one experiment. Two populations of paramecia grew in tubes with the same volume of water, but the tube where population 2 grew had twice as much food as the tube where population 1 grew.
14a. Do the light dots represent /

population growth for population 1 ___ or population 2 ___?

Explain your reasoning.

14b. The main limiting factor that determined carrying capacity for these paramecia was the amount of food ___ water ___ space ___. What evidence supports your conclusion?

This table compares the mathematical equations for exponential vs. logistic population growth for bacteria.

Exponential Population Growth / Logistic Population Growth
ΔN = N
  • ΔN is the change in the number of individuals from the beginning to the end of a time interval
  • N is the number of individuals at the beginning of the time interval
/ (K – N)
ΔN = N ------
  • ΔN and N are the same as for exponential growth
  • K is the carrying capacity of the environment

Notice that the first part of theequation for logistic population growth is the same as the equation for exponential population growth.

15. Circle the algebraic expression that is included in the logistic population growth equation, but not the exponential population growth equation.

16. Complete each of the following sentences with the best match from these three algebraic expressions: K K - N (K - N)/K

The number of individuals that can live in the environment is ______.

When there are N individuals in the population:

the number of additional individuals that can live in the environment is ______

and the fraction of carrying capacity that is still available for population growth is ______.

17. Complete the following table.

Explain why logistic population growth: / Provide an explanation based on the equations for exponential and logistic population growth. / Provide a biological explanation.
–is similar to
population growth
when N is small.
– slows to 0 as N gets
close to K.

IV. Using the Exponential and Logistic Population Growth Models

to Understand Recovery of Endangered Species

A model is a simplified representation of reality that can help us to understand a real-world phenomenon. For example, the exponential and logistic population growth curves are models that help us to understand and predict changes in population size for endangered species.

18. In 1975, Jim made a prediction about future growth of the population of whooping cranes in Texas. He knew that population size had increased from approximately 24 to approximately 53 in the past 20 years. Because population size had increased by about 30 in the past 20 years, Jim predicted the population size would increase by 30 every 20 years in the future. This would mean that by 2015 population size would beabout 110-115. We now know that the actual population size in the early 2010s was about 290, more than double Jim’s prediction.

Use the exponential population growth model to explain why Jim’s prediction was wrong. Why was the actual population growth so much greater than his prediction?

19a.Conservation biologistshave used two approaches to prevent the extinction of whooping cranes. They helped the one surviving population of wild whooping cranes to increase in size, and they also established additional populations of whooping cranes in other locations. Conservation biologists expect that the total number of wild whooping cranes will be greater if there are several populations in different wetlands, instead of a single population in onewetland.Use the logistic population growth model to explain why.

19b. What is another reason why there is less risk of extinction if there are several populations of whooping cranes at different locations and not just one population in a single location?

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 to prevent the extinction of endangered species in the US. Criticsargue that the ESAhas been ineffective since, so far, less than 2% of all protected species have recovered enough that they no longer need ESA protection. In contrast, supporters of the ESA argue that population growth is expected to take a long time, especially when recovery efforts start from a very small population and the endangered species has a low birth rate (e.g. 1-2 chicks per pair of whooping cranes per year). For many endangered species, population sizes have increased at expected rates,with reasonable progress toward expected future recovery.

20.After sixty years of conservation efforts, the number of wild whooping cranes has increased from about 20 in a single population to about 500 in three different populations today. However, whooping cranes are still thought to be at risk for extinction and are still protected by the ESA. Do you think that the conservation efforts for whooping cranes have been a success or failure? Explain your reasons.

V. Exponential and Logistic Population Growth Models vs. Complex Reality

21. The exponential and logistic population growth models can explain some trends in population size, but not others. For example, page 1 describes two major trends in numbers of whooping cranes.

  1. During the earlier period, the total number of whooping cranes decreased drastically and many populations of whooping cranes were entirely eliminated by hunting and habitat loss.
  2. More recently, the surviving population of whooping cranes increased in size, slowly at first and then more rapidly.
  • Which of these trends could be predicted by the exponential population growth model?

A ___ B ___

  • Does either the exponential population growth model or the logistic population growth model ever predict a decrease in population size? yes ___ no ___

Notice that neither the exponential nor the logistic population growth model includes the effects of changes in the environment such as increased predation or habitat loss. Therefore, neither model can predict or explain the early decrease in whooping crane population numbers.

Human hunting has decreased population size for many other species. This can have indirect effects on population size for other organisms in the same ecosystem. For example, how would a decrease in sea otter population size affect population size for the other organisms in this food chain?

To learn more, view the video at

22a. How does a decrease in sea otter population size affect sea urchin population size?

22b. How does a decrease in sea otter population size affect kelp population size?

23. To summarize what you have learned thus far, fill in one match per blank. (You may use each match more than once.)

The exponential population growth model includes ____

The logistic population growth model includes ______

In the real world, population size can be affected by ______

  1. increases in population size as a result of reproduction
  2. the effects of changes in the environment
  3. the effects of competition for limited resources

Models can help us understand and predict biological phenomena such as changes in population size. However, all models are based on simplifying assumptions and when these assumptions are not accurate the predictions of the model are not accurate.For example, the predictions of the logistic population growth model are only accurate when these two simplifying assumptions are true.

  • Carrying capacity is constant.
  • As population size approaches carrying capacity, population growth slows promptly and population size does not exceed the carrying capacity.

The next example illustrates what can happen when these simplifying assumptions are not true.

In 1911,25 reindeer were brought to an island off the coast of Alaska.This figure shows trends in the size of this reindeer population.
Initially, food was plentiful. However, by the late 1930s the large population of reindeer had drastically reduced the amount of lichen (which the reindeer depended on for their winter food). The slow-growing lichen had not significantly recovered by 1950. /

24. Scientists believe thatoriginally the carrying capacity of the island was about 700 reindeer.Draw the expected trend in population size if population growth had followed the logistic population growth model and the carrying capacity of the island was 700 reindeer.

25. By 1950, the number of reindeer had fallen well below the original carrying capacity of 700. Explain why population size fell so low. (Hint: Think about how carrying capacity was changed by the large population of reindeer in the late 1930s.)

26. Give evidence to support this statement.

Thelogistic population growth model is based on simplifying assumptions thatare not true for this reindeer population, so thelogistic population growth model does not accurately predict the trends in population size for these reindeer.

27. Dr. Smart says, “The exponential and logistic population growth models are useless. I have developed a new model that can accurately predict changes in population size for any population anywhere.” Use what you have learned to explain why we should not believe either sentence in his statement.

VI. Human Population Growth

Thus far, a population has been defined as a group of individuals of the same species that live in the same area at the same time. In this section, you will analyze changes in the total number of people on the Earth. You will see that there are some similarities and some differences between human population growth and the changes in population size that you have analyzed in previous sections.

It took many many thousands of years forworld population to reach 1 billion people. Then, it took a little over a century for population size to increase from 1 billion to 2 billion. After that, /

world population increased by more than 5 billion people in less than a century.

28. Explain how the exponential population growth model helps us to understand these trends in human population size.

29. Can you conclude from the above data that the Earth’s carrying capacity is more than 7 billion people? Explain your reasoning. (Hint: Remember the reindeer.)

The Earth’s carrying capacity is influenced by human behavior. For example, advances in agriculture have increased the amount of food produced, which has increased the Earth’s carrying capacity.

30. The Earth’s carrying capacity is also influenced by the amount and type of food that people consume. The average person in the US consumes approximately 25% more calories and almost three times as much meat as the average person in the world. Suppose that the average consumption per person in other parts of the world increased to equal the US average. How would this change the Earth’s carrying capacity? Explain your reasoning.

Optional Challenge Question

Some observations suggest that the current world population and consumption levels exceed the Earth’s long-range carrying capacity for humans. For example, in many farming areas, water from underground water stores is being used for crop irrigation at a faster rate than underground water is replaced by natural processes. Consequently, water levels are decreasing in many of the Earth’s large underground water stores. In some regions, decreasing levels of underground water have already had harmful effects (e.g. wells have dried up). To preserve underground water stores as a resource for long-term use, the rates of water use would have to be reduced to match the rates that underground water is replaced by natural processes.