Carrying Capacity and the Logistic Model

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Both graphs (a) and (b) plot population size versus time. In graph (a), exponential growth results in a curve that gets increasingly steep, resulting in a J-shape. In graph (b), logistic growth results in a curve that gets increasingly steep, then levels off when the carrying capacity is reached, resulting in an S-shape
When resources are unlimited, populations exhibit exponential growth, resulting in a J-shaped curve. When resources are limited, populations exhibit logistic growth. In logistic growth, population expansion decreases as resources become scarce, and it levels off when the carrying capacity of the environment is reached, resulting in an S-shaped curve. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

environments where there are few individuals and plentiful resources, but when the number of individuals gets large enough, resources will be depleted, slowing the growth rate. Eventually, the growth rate will plateau or level off. This population size, which represents the maximum population size that a particular environment can support, is called the carrying capacity, or K.

The formula we use to calculate logistic growth adds the carrying capacity as a moderating force in the growth rate. The expression “K – N” indicates how many individuals may be added to a population at a given stage, and “K – N” divided by “K” is the fraction of the carrying capacity available for further growth. Thus, the exponential growth model is restricted by this factor to generate the logistic growth equation:

Notice that when N is very small, (K-N)/K becomes close to K/K or 1, and the right side of the equation reduces to rmaxN, which means the population is growing exponentially and is not influenced by carrying capacity. On the other hand, when N is large, (K-N)/K comes close to zero, which means that population growth will be slowed greatly or even stopped. Thus, population growth is greatly slowed in large populations by the carrying capacity K. This model also allows for the population of a negative population growth, or a population decline. This occurs when the number of individuals in the population exceeds the carrying capacity (because the value of (K-N)/K is negative).

A graph of this equation yields an S-shaped curve, and it is a more realistic model of population growth than exponential growth. There are three different sections to an S-shaped curve. Initially, growth is exponential because there are few individuals and ample resources available. Then, as resources begin to become limited, the growth rate decreases. Finally, growth levels off at the carrying capacity of the environment, with little change in population size over time.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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