Subpopulation vs Population In Ecology and Conservation

Supporting the continued existence of species and ecological communities is a multidimensional process which requires understanding how species interact with each other and their physical environments. One of the major roles of ecological conservationists is to support the continued survival of species in natural ecosystems. Though ecologists aim to support species survival, extinctions can not be completely avoided; extinctions occur on a regular basis. Local extinctions are characterized by the disappearance of a species in a particular region or habitat. However, the same species may occupy similar habitats in other locations across vast distances. Fragmented of species groupings are known as its subpopulations.

What Is the Difference Between Population, Metapopulation and Subpopulation?

The overall status and health of a species is defined by its overarching metapopulation structure. The metapopulation structure is the entire set of represented groups of a single species across habitats. Those same species groups are known as populations. Populations are made up of individual organisms that belong to the same species who represented in a given region. Accordingly, distributions of subpopulations are groups that are part of the larger metapopulation structure.

Local Extinctions

When one of a species’ subpopulations disappears or dies out, it is considered a local extinction. Local extinctions strictly refer to the disappearance of a subpopulation in a particular area, habitat or region of an ecosystem. Local extinctions, which occur at the level of subpopulations, do not refer to the total disappearance of a species from all areas or habitats. Migrations between habitats helps keep subpopulations from going locally extinct. In other words, there is always a chance that a population could go locally extinct due to various pressures in its environment, such as adverse weather or resource scarcity.

However, physical connectivity between subpopulations can help prevent local extinctions. Migrants, organisms that travel between habitats, interact with other groups within the species. Having interconnectivity between subpopulation groups strengthens the chances of the species surviving by introducing new species members into the habitat. Therefore, managing the way that organisms are dispersed over long distances or across different habitats will be a relevant factor in conserving species diversity.


Conservation practices should consider curating the distribution of subpopulations as they relate to the metapopulation structure. If a species subpopulation number is low in a given habitat, then it will likely have a higher chance of going locally extinct. However, the arrival of migrants allow for the persistence of a species in a region. Connecting organisms or connecting subpopulations in different habitats (or in different locations) allows for an exchange of genes. Exchanging genes between subpopulations increases the chances of continued survival of the metapopulation. Isolated subpopulations are more likely to be vulnerable to local extinctions than subpopulations which are connected to larger group structures (or the metapopulation).

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