Trophic interactions and population growth rates: Describing patterns and identifying mechanisms

Peter J. Hudson, Andy P. Dobson, Isabella M. Cattadori, David Newborn, Dan T. Haydon, Darren J. Shaw, Tim G. Benton, Bryan T. Grenfell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


While the concept of population growth rate has been of central importance in the development of the theory of population dynamics, few empirical studies consider the intrinsic growth rate in detail, let alone how it may vary within and between populations of the same species. In an attempt to link theory with data we take two approaches. First, we address the question 'what growth rate patterns does theory predict we should see in time-series?' The models make a number of predictions, which in general are supported by a comparative study between time-series of harvesting data from 352 red grouse populations. Variations in growth rate between grouse populations were associated with factors that reflected the quality and availability of the main food plant of the grouse. However, while these results support predictions from theory, they provide no clear insight into the mechanisms influencing reductions in population growth rate and regulation. In the second part of the paper, we consider the results of experiments, first at the individual level and then at the population level, to identify the important mechanisms influencing changes in individual productivity and population growth rate. The parasitic nematode Trichostrongylus tenuis is found to have an important influence on productivity, and when incorporated into models with their patterns of distribution between individuals has a destabilizing effect and generates negative growth rates. The hypothesis that negative growth rates at the population level were caused by parasites was demonstrated by a replicated population level experiment. With a sound and tested model framework we then explore the interaction with other natural enemies and show that in general they tend to stabilize variations in growth rate. Interestingly, the models show selective predators that remove heavily infected individuals can release the grouse from parasite-induced regulation and allow equilibrium populations to rise. By contrast, a tick-borne virus that killed chicks simply leads to a reduction in the equilibrium. When humans take grouse they do not appear to stabilize populations and this may be because many of the infective stages are available for infection before harvesting commences. In our opinion, an understanding of growth rates and population dynamics is best achieved through a mechanistic approach that includes a sound experimental approach with the development of models. Models can be tested further to explore how the community of predators and others interact with their prey.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1259-1271
Number of pages13
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1425
StatePublished - Sep 29 2002
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Population cycles
  • Red grouse
  • Trichostrongylus tennis
  • Trophic interactions


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