The logistic growth model is one of the most frequently used formalizations of density dependence affecting population growth, persistence and evolution. Ecological and evolutionary theory and applications to understand population change over time often include this model. However, the assumptions and limitations of this popular model are often not well appreciated. Here, we briefly review past use of the logistic growth model and highlight limitations by deriving population growth models from underlying consumer-resource dynamics. We show that the logistic equation likely is not applicable to many biological systems. Rather, density-regulation functions are usually non-linear and may exhibit convex or both concave and convex curvatures depending on the biology of resources and consumers. In simple cases, the dynamics can be fully described by the continuous-time Beverton-Holt model. More complex consumer dynamics show similarities to a Maynard Smith-Slatkin model. Importantly, we show how population-level parameters, such as intrinsic rates of increase and equilibrium population densities are not independent, as often assumed. Rather, they are functions of the same underlying parameters. The commonly assumed positive relationship between equilibrium population density and competitive ability is typically invalid. As a solution, we propose simple and general relationships between intrinsic rates of increase and equilibrium population densities that capture the essence of different consumer-resource systems. Relating population level models to underlying mechanisms allows us to discuss applications to evolutionary outcomes and how these models depend on environmental conditions, like temperature via metabolic scaling. Finally, we use time-series from microbial food chains to fit population growth models and validate theoretical predictions. Our results show that density-regulation functions need to be chosen carefully as their shapes will depend on the study system’s biology. Importantly, we provide a mechanistic understanding of relationships between model parameters, which has implications for theory and for formulating biologically sound and empirically testable predictions.
E. A. Fronhofer, Lynn Govaert, M. O’Connor