Metapopulation Ecology


A metapopulation is a spatially structured population that persists over time as a set of local populations with limited dispersal between them. At equilibrium, the frequencies of local extinctions and colonisations are in balance. Starting in 1969, and accelerating in the early 1990s, mathematical models of metapopulations have shown the importance of landscape connectivity and dispersal for persistence of a species in fragmented landscapes. Metapopulation ecology is a key concept in conservation ecology. Although pure metapopulations may be rare, there are many empirical studies in which metapopulation processes, primarily local colonisation and extinction, have been useful in explaining dynamics of natural, managed and experimental systems. Metapopulation structure also affects population genetics, the rate of evolution, and the evolution of traits related to habitat use. Finally, just as a population can be structured as a metapopulation, communities inhabiting a heterogeneous landscape can form a metacommunity.

Key Concepts

  • A metapopulation is made up of semiā€independent local populations, with interplay between local and regional population dynamics.
  • While few species may live as metapopulations in the strict sense, many species depend on metapopulation processes. That is, a species regional persistence depends on asynchronous local dynamics and dispersal.
  • Models of the persistence of species in fragmented landscapes become more realistic if the metapopulation dynamics of the species is taken into account.
  • Closely interacting species, such as a predator and its prey or strong competitors, may persist on a landscape scale owing to metapopulation dynamics of the species involved.
  • Metapopulation structure imposes genetic structure on a population, influencing its genetic viability, rate of evolution and what traits evolve.
  • Communities of species that are distributed in a landscape form a metacommunity. This concept shares important characteristics with metapopulations.

Keywords: conservation; habitat fragmentation; population dynamics; population ecology; population genetics; spatial ecology

Figure 1. Illustration of the continuum of population structure.
Figure 2. A schematic drawing of the arrangement of microcosms and the mean number of days that a predator population persisted. The percentage values beside each array show the connectedness of the bottles as the mean percentage of other bottles directly connected by tubes averaged across all bottles in each microcosm. Error bars are ±SE. Persistence is unknown for predator populations that did not go extinct but was assumed to be 130 days, the duration of the experiment. Reproduced with permission from Holyoak © University of Chicago press.
Figure 3. The hypothetical relationship between habitat fragmentation in a metapopulation and the allocation to dispersal (green line) and reproduction (red line). This assumes that mobility comes at a cost to reproduction.
Figure 4. The metapopulation dynamics of the butterfly Melitaea cinxia and the parasitoid Cotesia melitaearum in the Åland islands from 1995 to 2007. The fraction of habitat patches occupied by the butterfly M. cinxia (orange line) is always greater than the fraction of local host populations occupied by the parasitoid (blue line). A subset of these data is presented in van Nouhuys and Hanski .


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Further Reading

Clobert J, Le Galliard J‐F, Cote J, Meylan S and Massot M (2009) Informed dispersal, heterogeneity in animal dispersal syndromes and the dynamics of spatially structured populations. Ecology Letters 12: 197–209.

Hanski I and Ovaskainen O (2002) Extinction debt at extinction threshold. Conservation Biology 16: 666–673.

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Hastings A (2013) Persistence and management of spatially distributed populations. Population Ecology 56: 21–26.

Holyoak M, Leibold MA and Holt RD (2005) Metacommunities: Spatial Dynamics and Ecological Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hylander K and Ehrlen J (2013) The mechanisms causing extinction debts. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 28: 341–346.

Kool JT, Moilanen A and Treml EA (2013) Population connectivity: recent advances and new perspectives. Landscape Ecology 28: 165–185.

Logue JB, Mouquet N, Peter H, Hillebrand H and Group MW (2011) Empirical approaches to metacommunities: a review and comparison with theory. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 26: 482–491.

Schnell JK, Harris GM, Pimm SL and Russell GJ (2013) Estimating extinction risk with metapopulation models of large‐scale fragmentation. Conservation Biology 27: 520–530.

Thompson JN (2005) The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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van Nouhuys, Saskya(Nov 2016) Metapopulation Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021905.pub2]