The frequency and severity of catastrophic die-offs in vertebrates

David H. Reed*, Julian J. O'Grady, Jonathan D. Ballou, Richard Frankham

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    107 Citations (Scopus)


    Rare bouts of extreme environmental perturbations (catastrophes) have been predicted to have a major influence on the probability of extinction. Yet very little information is available on the frequency and severity of catastrophes. Improving the available information concerning catastrophe parameters would allow for an evaluation of their effect and a start towards understanding their causes. We used the Global Population Dynamics Database to determine the frequency and severity of die-offs in 88 species of vertebrates. We define a catastrophe as any 1-year decrease in population size of 50% or greater. The data yielded three findings. (1) The frequency of severe die-offs in vertebrate populations is strongly related to the generation length of the organism. (2) The probability of a severe die-off for a particular population is approximately 14% per generation. (3) The frequency of die-off severity can be modelled as a modified power function with the frequency of die-offs decreasing with increasing magnitude of effect. The distribution is not consistent with catastrophes stemming from environmental sources different than those responsible for smaller fluctuations, but seems to represent the tail of a continuous distribution of environmental perturbations.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)109-114
    Number of pages6
    JournalAnimal Conservation
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - May 2003


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