Density-dependent selection and the limits of relative fitness

Jason Bertram, Joanna Masel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Selection is commonly described by assigning constant relative fitness values to genotypes. Yet population density is often regulated by crowding. Relative fitness may then depend on density, and selection can change density when it acts on a density-regulating trait. When strong density-dependent selection acts on a density-regulating trait, selection is no longer describable by density-independent relative fitnesses, even in demographically stable populations. These conditions are met in most previous models of density-dependent selection (e.g. “K-selection” in the logistic and Lotka–Volterra models), suggesting that density-independent relative fitnesses must be replaced with more ecologically explicit absolute fitnesses unless selection is weak. Here we show that density-independent relative fitnesses can also accurately describe strong density-dependent selection under some conditions. We develop a novel model of density-regulated population growth with three ecologically intuitive traits: fecundity, mortality, and competitive ability. Our model, unlike the logistic or Lotka–Volterra, incorporates a density-dependent juvenile “reproductive excess”, which largely decouples density-dependent selection from the regulation of density. We find that density-independent relative fitnesses accurately describe strong selection acting on any one trait, even fecundity, which is both density-regulating and subject to density-dependent selection. Pleiotropic interactions between these traits recover the familiar K-selection behavior. In such cases, or when the population is maintained far from demographic equilibrium, our model offers a possible alternative to relative fitness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-92
Number of pages12
JournalTheoretical Population Biology
StatePublished - Oct 2019


  • Competitive Lotka–Volterra
  • Eco-evo
  • Interference competition
  • Lottery model
  • r/K-selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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