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Biotic Potential and Carrying Capacity of a Population

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  • 0:07 What Is Biotic Potential?
  • 1:46 What Is Carrying Capacity?
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

When you look around, you can see a number of different individuals and species. In this lesson, we will explore the factors that control and define how many organisms can really inhabit a particular ecosystem or habitat.

What Is Biotic Potential?

Have you ever held a baby or seen ducklings in a pond? Both of these are examples of offspring of a specific species. Offspring are very important because, by producing offspring, a species is able to pass along genetic material to the next generation and continue the existence of the species.

Now, think about the baby and the ducklings again, but this time, think about how many you would normally see. In most circumstances, a human produces one or two babies at a time, while a duck has several ducklings at a time. This difference in the number of offspring produced can be referred to as a difference in biotic potential, which is the rate at which a species reproduces with unlimited conditions. Biotic potential describes the number of offspring a species can produce when they have ideal circumstances, including unlimited food and water, safe habitat, and any other conditions that would promote successful reproduction.

As we learned with the example of the baby and the ducklings, biotic potential can vary a great deal by species. Similarly to humans, many large mammals only produce one offspring per year or breeding season. On the other hand, many plants and insects can produce much larger numbers of offspring. In particular, many moths can lay hundreds of eggs, which, given the correct conditions, could all hatch and turn into successful offspring. There are also many species that fall between the two extremes, including geese, which produce between ten and twelve offspring each year.

What Is Carrying Capacity?

Biotic potential is applied to circumstances where organisms live in an ideal habitat with all of the conditions and materials they need. As most people would agree, you do not always have everything you need or want. The same is true in nature. In natural ecosystems, there is environmental resistance, which are factors that can limit the increase in a population. Common factors include predators, disease, competitors, and lack of food, water, and suitable habitat. Due to factors that contribute to environmental resistance, not all individuals that are born can survive to adulthood or reproductive age. As a result, the overall population of the species does not grow uncontrollably, but instead is limited and controlled.

This control, caused by environmental resistance, leads to the establishment of a carrying capacity, which is the maximum population size of a species that an ecosystem can support indefinitely. When carrying capacity is reached, a population can survive on the resources available without depleting the overall availability of the resources. When a population is below the carrying capacity, the individuals have access to more than enough resources to survive. As we learned from biotic potential, if individuals have the ideal circumstances, they can reproduce without limit, which causes population increases.

When a population grows and begins to reach the carrying capacity, the population begins using resources at an equal rate to which the resources are created. This often creates competition between individuals for the available resources. As a result, some individuals will die when they cannot get enough resources and others will not reproduce because they do not have the resources to support offspring.

Eventually, the birth rates will decline and death rates will increase. This will lead to an overall population decline until the population returns to a state where the number of individuals alive can survive successfully on the resources available, which will be the carrying capacity of the population.

A common example to help explain carrying capacity is the number of people that could survive a shipwreck on an abandoned island. Let's say that the ship had ten people on board when it crashed. If the island is large and has plenty of resources, then the population of humans would be below carrying capacity, and all ten people would have a better chance of surviving. If the island was small, the resources would be limited, and not all of the people would survive. The population would decline until it reached the carrying capacity, which would be when a certain number of people were able to survive on the resources available on the island.

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