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Population dispersion

The spatial distribution at any particular moment of the individuals of a species of plant or animal. Under natural conditions organisms are distributed either by active movements, or migrations, or by passive transport by wind, water, or other organisms. The act or process of dissemination is usually termed dispersal, while the resulting pattern of distribution is best referred to as dispersion. Dispersion is a basic characteristic of populations, controlling various features of their structure and organization. It determines population density, that is, the number of individuals per unit of area, or volume, and its reciprocal relationship, mean area, or the average area per individual. It also determines the frequency, or chance of encountering one or more individuals of the population in a particular sample unit of area, or volume. The ecologist therefore studies not only the fluctuations in numbers of individuals in a population but also the changes in their distribution in space. Population dispersal

Principal types of dispersion

The dispersion pattern of individuals in a population may conform to any one of several broad types, such as random, uniform, or contagious (clumped). Any pattern is relative to the space being examined; a population may appear clumped when a large area is considered, but may prove to be distributed at random with respect to a much smaller area.

Random or haphazard implies that the individuals have been distributed by chance. In such a distribution, the probability of finding an individual at any point in the area is the same for all points. Hence a truly random pattern will develop only if each individual has had an equal and independent opportunity to establish itself at any given point. Examples of approximately random dispersions can be found in the patterns of settlement by free-floating marine larvae and of colonization of bare ground by airborne disseminules of plants. Nevertheless, true randomness appears to be relatively rare in nature.

Uniform distribution implies a regularity of distance between and among the individuals of a population. Perfect uniformity exists when the distance from one individual to its nearest neighbor is the same for all individuals. Patterns approaching uniformity are most obvious in the dispersion of orchard trees and in other artificial plantings, but the tendency to a regular distribution is also found in nature, as for example in the relatively even spacing of trees in forest canopies, the arrangement of shrubs in deserts, and the distribution of territorial animals.

The most frequent type of distribution encountered is contagious or clumped, indicating the existence of aggregations or groups in the population. Clusters and clones of plants, and families, flocks, and herds of animals are common phenomena. The formation of groups introduces a higher order of complexity in the dispersion pattern, since the several aggregations may themselves be distributed at random, evenly, or in clumps. An adequate description of dispersion, therefore, must include not only the determination of the type of distribution, but also an assessment of the extent of aggregation if the latter is present.

Factors affecting dispersion

The principal factors that determine patterns of population dispersion include (1) the action of environmental agencies of transport, (2) the distribution of soil types and other physical features of the habitat, (3) the influence of temporal changes in weather and climate, (4) the behavior pattern of the population in regard to reproductive processes and dispersal of the young, (5) the intensity of intra- and interspecific competition, and (6) the various social and antisocial forces that may develop among the members of the population. Although in certain cases the dispersion pattern may be due to the overriding effects of one factor, in general populations are subject to the collective and simultaneous action of numerous distributional forces and the dispersion pattern reflects their combined influence. When many small factors act together on the population, a more or less random distribution is to be expected, whereas the domination of a few major factors tends to produce departure from randomness.

Optimal population density

The degree of aggregation which promotes optimum population growth and survival varies according to the species and the circumstances. Groups or organisms often flourish best if neither too few nor too many individuals are present; they have an optimal population density at some intermediate level. The concept of an intermediate optimal population density is sometimes known as Allee's principle. Ecological communities Population ecology Population genetics

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From McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. The Content is a copyrighted work of McGraw-Hill and McGraw-Hill reserves all rights in and to the Content. The Work is © 2008 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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