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Metapopulation: Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:03 What is a Metapopulation?
  • 0:23 Extended Family
  • 1:05 Expanded Families in Nature
  • 3:02 Metapopulation Theory
  • 4:08 Important to Wildlife Biology
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrienne Brundage
A metapopulation is a group of populations that are separated by space but consist of the same species. These spatially separated populations interact as individual members move from one population to another.

What is a Metapopulation?

A metapopulation is a population of populations, or a group of groups, that is made up of the same species. Each subpopulation, or subgroup, is separated from all other subpopulations, but movement of individuals from one population to another occurs regularly.

Extended Family

Ah, family. In modern times, it's easy to keep in touch with even the most far-flung members of your kin. You have grandparents in Florida, cousins in Minnesota, and even an aunt and uncle living up in Alaska. Throw in more distant relatives, and you could claim to have family members that live all over the world.

Each family group - you, your uncle and aunt, your second cousins, etc. - is considered a smaller subgroup of your family, separated by distance. You still interact with each subgroup to some extent though, and you are all related by blood. This group of individual subgroups makes up a metapopulation, and it is an important concept in ecology.

Expanded Families in Nature

Humans aren't the only species who have far-flung relatives spread around the globe. We see this same pattern in all manner of life forms. Have you ever noticed a swallowtail butterfly in your backyard and then observed another one during a vacation in the mountains? These two butterflies belong to the same species, but they are not part of the same local population, since they live so far away from each other.

While every once in awhile a really adventurous butterfly may fly down off that mountain and visit the population living in your backyard, this doesn't happen very often. This visitation is a concept known as interaction among populations of the same species. Subpopulations within a metapopulation interact to a limited extent - enough to mate and keep the family line going, but not enough for them to be considered members of the same subpopulation.

This is important because that infrequent visitation between subpopulations keeps those subpopulations looking and acting like the same species. If two groups of the same species are isolated from each other long enough, they start to grow apart. Eventually (we're talking after thousands upon thousands of generations where the two populations don't interact), the populations look very different, act very different, and couldn't mate with each other if they wanted to. This type of evolution is called divergent evolution and is what most people think of when we think of new species evolving in nature.

So what does this have to do with metapopulations? Well, scientists noticed that same thing with the butterflies. They saw butterflies in their backyards that looked and acted exactly like butterflies up in the mountains, or in a different country, or on the other side of the world. Of course, being scientists, they also captured some of those butterflies from all over the place and put them together to see if they were really the same species. They were. How was this possible? Enter metapopulation theory.

Metapopulation Theory

Metapopulation theory states that a large population consisting of a single species is most stable over a large area when it is divided up into smaller subpopulations. These subpopulations take advantage of small, local environments, like your backyard or the park down the street. These small, local environments are known as patches.

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