Demographic stochasticity and temporal autocorrelation in the dynamics of structured populations

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Populations can show temporal autocorrelation in the dynamics arising from different mechanisms, including fluctuations in the demographic structure. This autocorrelation is often treated as a complicating factor in the analyses of stochastic population growth and extinction risk. However, it also reflects important information about the demographic structure. Here, we consider how temporal autocorrelation is related to demographic stochasticity in structured populations. Demographic stochasticity arises from inherent randomness in the demographic processes of individuals, like survival and reproduction, and the resulting impact on population growth is measured by the demographic variance. Earlier studies have shown that population structure have positive or negative effects on the demographic variance compared to a model where the structure is ignored. Here, we derive a new expression for the demographic variance of a structured population, using the temporal autocorrelation function of the population growth rate. We show that the relative difference in demographic variance when the structure is included or ignored (the effect of structure on demographic variance) is approximately twice the sum of the autocorrelations. We demonstrate the result for a simple hypothetical example, as well as a set of empirical examples using age-structured models of 24 mammals from the demographic database COMADRE. In the empirical examples, the sum of the autocorrelation function was negative in all cases, indicating that age structure generally has a negative effect on the demographic variance (i.e. the demographic variance is lower compared to that of a model where the structure is ignored). Other kinds of structure, such as spatial heterogeneity affecting fecundity, can have positive effects on the demographic variance, and the sum of the autocorrelations will then be positive. These results yield new insights into the complex interplay between population structure, demographic variance, and temporal autocorrelation, that shapes the population dynamics and extinction risk of populations.

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