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The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment. In population biology, carrying capacity is defined as the environment's maximal load,[1] which is different from the concept of population equilibrium.

For the human population, more complex variables such as sanitation and medical care are sometimes considered as part of the necessary establishment. As population density increases, birth rate often decreases and death rate typically increases. The difference between the birth rate and the death rate is the "natural increase". The carrying capacity could support a positive natural increase, or could require a negative natural increase. Thus, the carrying capacity is the number of individuals an environment can support without significant negative impacts to the given organism and its environment. Below carrying capacity, populations typically increase, while above, they typically decrease. A factor that keeps population size at equilibrium is known as a regulating factor. Population size decreases above carrying capacity due to a range of factors depending on the species concerned, but can include insufficient space, food supply, or sunlight. The carrying capacity of an environment may vary for different species and may change over time due to a variety of factors, including: food availability, water supply, environmental conditions and living space.

The origins of the term carrying capacity are uncertain with researchers variously stating that it was used "in the context of international shipping"[2] or that it was first used during 19th Century laboratory experiments with micro-organisms.[3] A recent review finds the first use of the term in an 1845 report by the US Secretary of State to the Senate.[4]


One of the world's best-studied predator–prey relationships is the moose and wolf population of Isle Royale National Park [1] in Lake Superior. Without the wolves, the moose would overgraze the island's vegetation.[5] Without the moose, the wolves would die. The first scientists who studied the issue thought that the wolves would eventually overpopulate and kill all the moose calves, then die from famine[citation needed]. This has not occurred as inbreeding,[5] disease and environmental factors[6] have limited the wolf population naturally.

Easter Island has been cited as an example of a human population crash. When fewer than 100 humans first arrived, the island was covered with trees with a large variety of food types. In 1722, the island was visited by Jacob Roggeveen, who estimated a population of 2000 to 3000 inhabitants with very few trees, "a rich soil, good climate" and "all the county was under cultivation". Half a century later, it was described as "a poor land" and "largely uncultivated". The ecological collapse which followed has been variously attributed to overpopulation, slave traders, European diseases (including a smallpox epidemic which killed so many so quickly, the dead were left unburied and a tuberculosis epidemic wiped out a quarter of the population), social upheaval and invasive species (such as the Polynesian rats which may have wiped out the ground nesting birds and eaten the palm tree seeds). This combination of factors resulted in only 111 inhabitants living on the island in 1877.

The Chincoteague Pony Swim [2] is a human-assisted example.

Both herds are managed differently. The National Park Service owns and manages the Maryland herd while the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia herd. The Virginia herd, referred to as the "Chincoteague" ponies, is allowed to graze on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, through a special use permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The size of both herds is restricted to approximately 150 adult animals each in order to protect the other natural resources of the wildlife refuge.

A further example is the Island of Tarawa,[7] where the finite amount of space is evident, especially since landfills cannot be dug to dispose of solid waste, due to constraints in the subsurface rock and lack of topographic elevations. With colonial influence and an abundance of food (relative to life before the year 1850), the population has expanded to the extent that overpopulation is transparently present.[8]


The Lotka–Volterra equations are simple mathematical models of population dynamics which show how in a closed system, like that of the wolves and moose on Isle Royale, limited prey will cause the predator population to decline rapidly. An extended example can be used where multiple species are competing for the same resources, or single species feed on multiple prey.


Several estimates of the carrying capacity have been made with a wide range of population numbers. A 2001 UN report said that two-thirds of the estimates fall in the range of 4 billion to 16 billion (with unspecified standard errors), with a median of about 10 billion.[9] More recent estimates are much lower, particularly if resource depletion is considered.[10][11]

The application of the concept of carrying capacity for the human population has been criticized for not successfully capturing the multi-layered processes between humans and the environment, which have a nature of fluidity and non-equilibrium, and that it often has a blame-the-victim framework.[12]

Supporters of the concept argue that the idea of a finite carrying capacity is just as valid when applied to humans as when applied to any other species. Animal population size, living standards, and resource depletion vary, but the concept of carrying capacity still applies. The carrying capacity of Earth has been studied by computer simulation models like World3.

Food supply and consumption[]

Carrying capacity, at its most basic level, is about organisms and food supply, where "X" amount of humans need "Y" amount of food to survive. If the humans neither gain or lose weight in the long run, the calculation is fairly accurate. If the quantity of food is invariably equal to the "Y" amount, carrying capacity has been reached. Humans, with the need to enhance their reproductive success (see Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene[verification needed]), understand that food supply can vary and also that other factors in the environment can alter humans' need for food. A house, for example, might mean that one does not need to eat as much to stay warm as one otherwise would. Over time, monetary transactions have replaced barter and local production, and consequently modified local human carrying capacity. However, purchases also impact regions thousands of miles away. For example, carbon dioxide from an automobile travels to the upper atmosphere. This led Paul R. Ehrlich to develop the I = PAT equation[13]

I = P ∙ A ∙ T


I is the impact on the environment resulting from consumption
P is the population number
A is the consumption per capita (affluence)
T is the technology factor

Technology is an important factor in the dynamics of carrying capacity. For example, the Neolithic revolution increased the carrying capacity of the world relative to humans through the invention of agriculture. Currently, the use of fossil fuels has artificially increased the carrying capacity of the world by the use of stored sunlight, albeit at many other expenses. Other technological advances that have increased the carrying capacity of the world relative to humans are: polders, fertilizer, composting, greenhouses, land reclamation, and fish farming.[citation needed]

Agricultural capability on Earth expanded in the last quarter of the 20th century. But now there are many projections of a continuation of the decline in world agricultural capability (and hence carrying capacity) which began in the 1990s. Most conspicuously, China's food production is forecast to decline by 37% by the last half of the 21st century, placing a strain on the entire carrying capacity of the world, as China's population could expand to about 1.5 billion people by the year 2050.[14] This reduction in China's agricultural capability (as in other world regions) is largely due to the world water crisis and especially due to mining groundwater beyond sustainable yield, which has been happening in China since the mid-20th century.[15]

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, has said: "It would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our present level of consumption. Environmentally, the world is in an overshoot mode."[16]

Ecological footprint[]

One way to estimate human demand compared to ecosystem's carrying capacity is "Ecological footprint" accounting. Rather than speculating about future possibilities and limitations imposed by carrying capacity constraints, Ecological Footprint accounting provides empirical, non-speculative assessments of the past. It compares historic regeneration rates (biocapacity) against historical human demand (Ecological Footprint) in the same year.[17][18] One result shows that humanity's demand for 1999 exceeded the planet's biocapacity for 1999 by over 20 percent.[17]

In tourism[]

Main article: Tourism carrying capacity

Tourism carrying capacity is a now antiquated approach to managing visitors in protected areas and national parks which evolved out of the fields of range, habitat and wildlife management. In these fields, managers attempted to determine the largest population of a particular species that could be supported by a habitat over a long period of time.[19]

See also[]

  • Arable land
  • Asymmetry Principle
  • Biocapacity
  • Ecological footprint
  • Environmental space
  • Limit load
  • List of countries by fertility rate
  • Over-consumption
  • Overpopulation
  • Overpopulation in wild animals
  • Overshoot (ecology)
  • Population
  • Population ecology
  • Population growth
  • r/K selection theory
  • Simon–Ehrlich wager
  • Thomas Malthus
  • Toxic capacity


  1. Hui, C. (2006) Carrying capacity, population equilibrium, and envrionment's maximal load. Ecological Modelling, 192, 317–320.
  2. Sayre, N.F., "The Genesis, History, and Limits of Carrying Capacity", Annals of the Assoc. of American Geo., 98(1), 120–134, (2008)
  3. Zimmerer, K.S., "Human Geography and the "New Ecology": The Prospect of Promise and Integration", Annals of the Assoc. of American Geo., 84(1), 108–125, (1994)
  4. Sayre, N.F., "The Genesis, History, and Limits of Carrying Capacity", Annals of the Assoc. of American Geo., 98(1), p. 122 (2008)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Vucetich, J.A., and Peterson R.O., Long-term population and predation dynamics of wolves on Isle Royale, Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, Macdonald, D. and Sillero-Zubiri, C. (ed), OUP, 281–292, (2004)
  6. Wilmers, C.C., Post, E.S., Peterson, R.O. and Vucetich, J.A., "Disease mediated switch from top-down to bottom-up control exacerbates climatic effects on moose population dynamics", Ecology Letters, 9(4), 383–389, (2006)
  7. Pacific Magazine: Tarawa Tackles Growing Waste Crisis
  8. Troost, J.M., The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, Broadway, (2004)
  9. UN World Population Report 2001. (PDF) URL accessed on 16 December 2008.
  10. Ryerson, W. F., "Population, The Multiplier of Everything Else", in McKibben, D, The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Centery Sustainability Crisis, Watershed Media, 2010, ISBN 978-0-9709500-6-2 
  11. Brown, L. R. (2011). World on the Edge, Norton.
  12. Cliggett, L., "Carrying Capacity's New Guise: Folk Models for Public Debate and Longitudinal Study of Environmental Change", Africa Today, 48(1), 2-19, (2001)
  13. Ehrlich, P.R., Holdren, J.P., "Impact of Population Growth", Science, 171(3977), 1212–1217, (1971)
  14. Economy, E., China vs. Earth, The Nation, May 7, 2007 issue
  15. Nielsen, R., The Little Green Handbook, Picador, (2006) ISBN 0-312-42581-3
  16. Brown, L. R. (2011). World on the Edge, 7, Norton.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Wackernagel, M., Schulz, N.B., et al, “Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 99(14), 9266–9271, (2002)
  18. Rees, W.E. and Wackernagel, M., Ecological Footprints and Appropriated Carrying Capacity: Measuring the Natural Capital Requirements of the Human Economy, Jansson, A., Folke, C., Hammer, M. and Costanza R. (ed.), Island Press,(1994)
  19. Jurassic Coast


  • Gausset Q., M. Whyte and T. Birch-Thomsen (eds.) (2005) Beyond territory and scarcity: Exploring conflicts over natural resource management. Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute
  • Tiffen, M, Mortimore, M, Gichuki, F. (1994) More people, less erosion: Environmental recovery in Kenya. London: Longman.
  • Sayre, N.F. (2008) "The Genesis, History, and Limits of Carrying Capacity". Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98(1), pp. 120–134.
  • Shelby, Bo and Thomas A. Heberlein (1986) "Carrying capacity in recreation settings." Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.
  • Karl S. Zimmer (1994) Human geography and the “new ecology”: the prospect and promise of integration. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 84, p. XXX.

External links[]

Template:Population Template:Modelling ecosystems

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