Metabolism drives demography in an experimental field test

Authors: Lukas Schuster, Hayley Cameron, Craig R White, and Dustin J Marshall

Published in: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


Biology has long-standing rules about how metabolism and demography should covary. These rules connect physiology to ecology but remarkably, these rules have only ever been tested indirectly.

Using a model marine invertebrate, we created experimental field populations that varied in metabolic rate but not body size.

We show that metabolism qualitatively affects population growth and carrying capacity in ways predicted by theory but that scaling relationships for these parameters, as well as estimates of energy use at carrying capacity, depart from classic predictions.

That metabolism affects demography in ways that depart from canonical theory has important implications for predicting how populations may respond to global change and size-selective harvesting.


Metabolism should drive demography by determining the rates of both biological work and resource demand. Long-standing “rules” for how metabolism should covary with demography permeate biology, from predicting the impacts of climate change to managing fisheries.
Evidence for these rules is almost exclusively indirect and in the form of among-species comparisons, while direct evidence is exceptionally rare.

In a manipulative field experiment on a sessile marine invertebrate, we created experimental populations that varied in population size (density) and metabolic rate, but not body size. We then tested key theoretical predictions regarding relationships between metabolism and demography by parameterizing population models with lifetime performance data from our field experiment.

We found that populations with higher metabolisms had greater intrinsic rates of increase and lower carrying capacities, in qualitative accordance with classic theory. We also found important departures from theory—in particular, carrying capacity declined less steeply than predicted, such that energy use at equilibrium increased with metabolic rate, violating the long-standing axiom of energy equivalence.

Theory holds that energy equivalence emerges because resource supply is assumed to be independent of metabolic rate. We find this assumption to be violated under real-world conditions, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the management of biological systems.

Schuster L, Cameron H, White CR, Marshall DJ (2021) Metabolism drives demography in an experimental field test. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America DOI