Variation in Allee effects: evidence, unknowns, and directions forward
Allee effects, positive effects of population size or density on per-capita fitness, are of broad interest in ecology and conservation due to their importance to the persistence of small populations and to range boundary dynamics. A number of recent studies have highlighted the importance of spatiotemporal variation in Allee effects and the resulting impacts on population dynamics. These advances challenge conventional understanding of Allee effects by reframing them as a dynamic factor affecting populations instead of a static condition. First, we synthesize evidence for variation in Allee effects and highlight potential mechanisms. Second, we emphasize the “Allee slope,” i.e., the magnitude of the positive effect of density on the per-capita growth rate, as a metric for demographic Allee effects. The more commonly used quantitative metric, the Allee threshold, provides only a partial picture of the underlying forces acting on population growth despite its implications for population extinction. Third, we identify remaining unknowns and strategies for addressing them. Outstanding questions about variation in Allee effects fall broadly under three categories: (1) characterizing patterns of natural variability; (2) understanding mechanisms of variation; and (3) implications for populations, including applications to conservation and management. Future insights are best achieved through robust interactions between theory and empiricism, especially through mechanistic models. Understanding spatiotemporal variation in the demographic processes contributing to the dynamics of small populations is a critical step in the advancement of population ecology.