Population Research Methods

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Photo shows a person looking down at a grid set on a patch of grass.
A scientist uses a quadrat to measure population size and density. (credit: NPS Sonoran Desert Network)

OpenStax Biology 2e

The most accurate way to determine population size is to simply count all of the individuals within the habitat. However, this method is often not logistically or economically feasible, especially when studying large habitats. Thus, scientists usually study populations by sampling a representative portion of each habitat and using this data to make inferences about the habitat as a whole. A variety of methods can be used to sample populations to determine their size and density. For immobile organisms such as plants, or for very small and slow-moving organisms, a quadrat may be used. A quadrat is a way of marking off square areas within a habitat, either by staking out an area with sticks and string, or by the use of a wood, plastic, or metal square placed on the ground. After setting the quadrats, researchers then count the number of individuals that lie within their boundaries. Multiple quadrat samples are performed throughout the habitat at several random locations to estimate the population size and density within the entire habitat. The number and size of quadrat samples depends on the type of organisms under study and other factors, including the density of the organism. For example, if sampling daffodils, a 1 m2 quadrat might be used. With giant redwoods, on the other hand, a larger quadrat of 100 m2 might be employed. This ensures that enough individuals of the species are counted to get an accurate sample that correlates with the habitat, including areas not sampled.

For mobile organisms, such as mammals, birds, or fish, scientists use a technique called mark and recapture. This method involves marking a sample of captured animals in some way (such as tags, bands, paint, or other body markings), and then releasing them back into the environment to allow them to mix with the rest of the population. Later, researchers collect a new sample, including some individuals that are marked (recaptures) and some individuals that are unmarked.

Photo A shows two bighorn sheep, one with a collar around its neck. Photo B shows a condor in flight with a tag on its wing. Photo C shows a man holding a salmon with a tag on its back.
Mark and recapture is used to measure the population size of mobile animals such as (a) bighorn sheep, (b) the California condor, and (c) salmon. (credit a: modification of work by Neal Herbert, NPS; credit b: modification of work by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS; credit c: modification of work by Ingrid Taylar)

Using the ratio of marked and unmarked individuals, scientists determine how many individuals are in the sample. From this, calculations are used to estimate the total population size. This method assumes that the larger the population, the lower the percentage of tagged organisms that will be recaptured since they will have mixed with more untagged individuals. For example, if 80 deer are captured, tagged, and released into the forest, and later 100 deer are captured and 20 of them are already marked, we can estimate the population size (N) using the following equation:

Using our example, the population size would be estimated at 400.

Therefore, there are an estimated 400 total individuals in the original population.

There are some limitations to the mark and recapture method. Some animals from the first catch may learn to avoid capture in the second round, thus inflating population estimates. Alternatively, some animals may prefer to be retrapped (especially if a food reward is offered), resulting in an underestimate of population size. Also, some species may be harmed by the marking technique, reducing their survival. A variety of other techniques have been developed, including the electronic tracking of animals tagged with radio transmitters and the use of data from commercial fishing and trapping operations to estimate the size and health of populations and communities.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e


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