Classics: Minimum Viable Population size

21 08 2008

‘Classics’ is a category of posts highlighting research that has made a real difference to biodiversity conservation. All posts in this category will be permanently displayed on the Classics page of

Too-Few-CaloriesShaffer, M.L. (1981). Minimum population sizes for species conservation. BioScience 31, 131–134

Small and isolated populations are particularly vulnerable to extinction through random variation in birth and death rates, variation in resource or habitat availability, predation, competitive interactions and single-event catastrophes, and inbreeding. Enter the concept of the Minimum Viable Population (MVP) size, which was originally defined as the smallest number of individuals required for an isolated population to persist (at some predefined ‘high’ probability) for some ‘long’ time into the future. In other words, the MVP size is the number of individuals in the population that is needed to withstand normal (expected) variation in all the things that affect individual persistence through time. Drop below your MVP size, and suddenly your population’s risk of extinction sky-rockets. In some ways, MVP size can be considered the threshold dividing the ‘small’ and ‘declining’ population paradigms (see Caughley 1994), so that different management strategies can be applied to populations depending on their relative distance to (population-specific) MVP size.

This wonderfully simply, yet fundamental concept of extinction dynamics provides the target for species recovery, minimum reserve size and sustainable harvest if calculated correctly. Indeed, it is a concept underlying threatened species lists worldwide, including the most well-known (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species). While there are a host of methods issues, genetic considerations and policy implementation problems, Shaffer’s original paper spawned an entire generation of research and mathematical techniques in conservation biology, and set the stage for tangible, mathematically based conservation targets.

Want more information? We have published some papers and articles on the subject that elaborate more on the methods, expected ranges, subtleties and implications of the MVP concept that you can access below.

CJA Bradshaw

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