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Experimental demonstration of a two-phase population extinction hazard.

Abstract

Population extinction is a fundamental biological process with applications to ecology, epidemiology, immunology, conservation biology and genetics. Although a monotonic relationship between initial population size and mean extinction time is predicted by virtually all theoretical models, attempts at empirical demonstration have been equivocal. We suggest that this anomaly is best explained with reference to the transient properties of ensembles of populations. Specifically, we submit that under experimental conditions, many populations escape their initially vulnerable state to reach quasi-stationarity, where effects of initial conditions are erased. Thus, extinction of populations initialized far from quasi-stationarity may be exposed to a two-phase extinction hazard. An empirical prediction of this theory is that the fit Cox proportional hazards regression model for the observed survival time distribution of a group of populations will be shown to violate the proportional hazards assumption early in the experiment, but not at later times. We report results of two experiments with the cladoceran zooplankton Daphnia magna designed to exhibit this phenomenon. In one experiment, habitat size was also varied. Statistical analysis showed that in one of these experiments a transformation occurred so that very early in the experiment there existed a transient phase during which the extinction hazard was primarily owing to the initial population size, and that this was gradually replaced by a more stable quasi-stationary phase. In the second experiment, only habitat size unambiguously displayed an effect. Analysis of data pooled from both experiments suggests that the overall extinction time distribution in this system results from the mixture of extinctions during the initial rapid phase, during which the effects of initial population size can be considerable, and a longer quasi-stationary phase, during which only habitat size has an effect. These are the first results, to our knowledge, of a two-phase population extinction process.

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