Does energy flux predict density-dependence? An empirical field test

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Changes in population density alter the availability, acquisition, and expenditure of resources by individuals, and consequently their contribution to the flux of energy in a system. While both negative and positive density-dependence have been well studied in natural populations, we are yet to estimate the underlying energy flows that generate these patterns and the ambivalent effects of density make prediction difficult. Ultimately, density-dependence should emerge from the effects of conspecifics on rates of energy intake (feeding) and expenditure (metabolism) at the organismal level, thus determining the discretionary energy available for growth. Using a model system of colonial marine invertebrates, we measured feeding and metabolic rates across a range of population densities to calculate how discretionary energy per colony changes with density and test whether this energy predicts observed patterns in organismal size across densities. We found that both feeding and metabolic rates decline with density but that feeding declines faster, and that this discrepancy is the source of density-dependent reductions in individual growth. Importantly, we could predict the size of our focal organisms after eight weeks in the field based on our estimates of energy intake and expenditure. The effects of density on both energy intake and expenditure overwhelmed the effects of body size; even though higher density populations had smaller colonies (with higher mass-specific biological rates), density effects meant that these smaller colonies had lower mass-specific rates overall. Thus, to predict the contribution of organisms to the flux of energy in populations, it seems necessary not only to quantify how rates of energy intake and expenditure scale with body size, but also how they scale with density given that this ecological constraint can be a stronger driver of energy use than the physiological constraint of body size.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3116-3126
Number of pages11
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017


  • competition
  • geometric biology
  • growth rate
  • homeostasis
  • metabolic theory
  • population
  • respiration
  • trophic interactions

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