GRE Reading Comprehension
As Gilbert White, Darwin, and others observed long ago, all species appear to have the innate capacity to increase their numbers from generation to generation. The task for ecologists is to untangle the environmental and biological factors that hold this intrinsic capacity for population growth in check over the long run. The great variety of dynamic behaviors exhibited by different populations makes this task more difficult: some populations remain roughly constant from year to year; others exhibit regular cycles of abundance and scarcity; still others vary wildly, with outbreaks and crashes that are in some cases plainly correlated with the weather, and in other cases not.
To impose some order on this kaleidoscope of patterns, one school of thought proposes dividing populations into two groups. These ecologists posit that the relatively steady populations have "density- dependent" growth parameters; that is, rates of birth, death, and migration which depend strongly on population density. The highly varying populations have "density-independent" growth parameters, with vital, rates buffeted by environmental events; these rates fluctuate in a way that is wholly independent of population density.
This dichotomy has its uses, but it can cause problems if taken too literally. For one thing, no population can be driven entirely by density-independent factors all the time. No matter how severely or unpredictably birth, death and migration rates may be fluctuating around their long-term averages, if there were no density-dependent effects, the population would, in the long run, either increase or decrease without bound (barring a miracle by which gains and losses canceled exactly). Put another way, it may be that on average 99 percent of all deaths in a population arise from density-independent causes, and only one percent from factors varying with density. The factors making up the one percent may seem unimportant, and their cause may be correspondingly hard to determine. Yet, whether recognized or not, they will usually determine the long-term average population density.
In order to understand the nature of the ecologist's investigation, we may think of the density-dependent effects on growth parameters as the "signal" ecologists are trying to isolate and interpret, one that tends to make the population increase from relatively low values or decrease from relatively high ones, while the density- independent effects act to produce "noise" in the population dynamics. For populations that remain relatively constant, or that oscillate around repeated cycles, the signal can be fairly easily characterized and its effects described, even though the causative biological mechanism may remain unknown. For irregularly fluctuating populations, we are likely to have too few observations to have any hope of extracting the signal from the overwhelming noise. But it now seems clear that all populations are regulated by a mixture of density- dependent and density-independent effects in varying proportions
The author of the passage is primarily concerned with
- A discussing two categories of factors that control population growth and assessing their relative importance
- B describing how growth rates in natural populations fluctuate over time and explaining why these changes occur
- C proposing a hypothesis concerning population sizes and suggesting ways to test it
- D posing a fundamental question about environmental factors in population growth and presenting some currently accepted answers
- E refuting a commonly accepted theory about population density and offering a new alternative
Correct Answer: A