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R/K selection theory

Template:DISPLAYTITLE:r/K selection theory In ecology, r/K selection theory relates to the selection of traits which promote success in particular environments. The theory originates from work on island biogeography by the ecologists Robert MacArthur and E. O. Wilson[1].

Additional recommended knowledge



In r/K selection theory, selective pressures are hypothesised to drive evolution in one of two generalized directions: r- or K-selection[2]. These terms, r and K, are derived from standard ecological algebra, as illustrated in the simple Verhulst equation of population dynamics[3]:

\frac{dN}{dt}=rN\left(1 - \frac{N}{K}\right) \qquad \!

where r is the growth rate of the population (N), and K is the carrying capacity of its local environmental setting. Typically, r-selected species exploit empty niches, and produce many offspring, each of whom has a relatively low probability of surviving to adulthood. In contrast, K-selected species are strong competitors in crowded niches, and invest more heavily in much fewer offspring, each of whom has a relatively high probability of surviving to adulthood.

r/K selection and environmental stability


In unstable or unpredictable environments r-selection predominates, as the ability to reproduce quickly is crucial, and there is little advantage in adaptations that permit successful competition with other organisms, because the environment is likely to change again. Traits that are thought to be characteristic of r-selection include: high fecundity, small body size, short generation time, and the ability to disperse offspring widely. Organisms whose life history is subject to r-selection are often referred to as r-strategists or r-selected. Organisms with r-selected traits range from bacteria and diatoms, through insects and weeds, to various semelparous cephalopods and mammals, especially small rodents.


In stable or predictable environments K-selection predominates, as the ability to compete successfully for limited resources is crucial, and populations of K-selected organisms typically are very constant and close to the maximum that the environment can bear. Traits that are thought to be characteristic of K-selection include: large body size, long life expectancy, and the production of fewer offspring that require extensive parental care until they mature. Organisms whose life history is subject to K-selection are often referred to as K-strategists or K-selected. Organisms with K-selected traits include large organisms such as elephants, humans and whales, but smaller organisms also use this "strategy" successfully, such as Arctic Terns.

r/K selection as a continuous spectrum

It should be noted that, although some organisms are primarily r- or K-strategists, the majority of organisms fall between these two ecological extremes and may display traits considered characteristic of both ends of the r/K spectrum. For instance, trees have traits such as longevity and strong competitiveness that characterise them as K-strategists. In reproduction, however, trees typically produce thousands of offspring and disperse them widely, traits characteristic of r-strategists. Similarly, reptiles such as sea turtles display both r- and K-traits: although large organisms with long lifespans (should they reach adulthood), they produce large numbers of unnurtured offspring.

r/K selection and ecological succession

In areas of major ecological disruption or sterilisation (such as after a major volcanic eruption, as at Krakatoa or Mount Saint Helens), r- and K-strategists play distinct roles in the ecological succession that regenerates the ecosystem. Because of their higher reproductive rates and ecological opportunism, primary colonisers typically are r-strategists and they are followed by a succession of increasingly competitive flora and fauna. The ability of an environment to maximise entropy, through photosynthetic capture of solar energy, increases with the increase in complex biodiversity as r species proliferate to reach a peak possible with K strategies[4]. Eventually a new equilibrium is approached (sometimes referred to as a climax community), with r-strategists gradually being replaced by K-strategists which are more competitive and better adapted to the emerging micro-environmental characteristics of the landscape. Typically, biodiversity is maximised at this stage, with introductions of new species resulting in the replacement and local extinction of endemic species[5].

Human races

In his controversial book Race, Evolution, and Behavior, the psychologist J. Philippe Rushton argued that East Asians have used the K strategy to a greater extent than Whites, who have used the K strategy to a greater extent than Blacks. He posed this hypothesis to explain his observation that East Asians, Whites, and Blacks frequently lie along a continuum of traits, with East Asians at one end, Blacks at the other end, and Whites in between them. (See also: Rushton's ordering of the human races, race and intelligence.) Rushton has also noted that criminals tend to display characteristics more commonly associated with an r-strategy, including low IQs, short lifespans, large families, etc.

Rushton's research has been widely criticized, however, and other studies have contradicted many of his claims.

Status of r/K selection theory

Although r/K selection theory became widely used during the 1970s[6][7][8][9], it also began to attract more critical attention[10][11][12]. In particular, an influential review by the ecologist Stephen Stearns drew attention to gaps in the theory, and to ambiguities in the interpretation of empirical data for testing it[13].

See also

  • Adaptive capacity
  • Evolutionary game theory


  1. ^ MacArthur, R. and Wilson, E. O. (1967). The Theory of Island Biogeography, Princeton University Press (2001 reprint), ISBN 0-691-08836-5M.
  2. ^ Pianka, E. R. (1970). On r and K selection. American Naturalist 104, 592-597.
  3. ^ Verhulst, P. F. (1838). Notice sur la loi que la population pursuit dans son accroissement. Corresp. Math. Phys. 10, 113-121.
  4. ^ Gunderson, Lance & Holling, C. S. (Eds) (2001), "Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems" (Island Press)
  5. ^ McNeely, J. A. (1994) Lessons of the past: Forests and Biodiversity. Biodiversity and Conservation 3, 3-20.
  6. ^ Gadgil, M. and Solbrig, O.T. (1972). Concept of r-selection and K-selection - evidence from wild flowers and some theoretical consideration. Am. Nat. 106, 14.
  7. ^ Long, T. and Long, G. (1974). Effects of r-selection and K-selection on components of variance for 2 quantitative traits. Genetics 76, 567-573.
  8. ^ Grahame, J. (1977). Reproductive effort and r-selection and K-selection in 2 species of Lacuna (Gastropoda-Prosobranchia). Mar. Biol. 40, 217-224.
  9. ^ Luckinbill, L.S. (1978). r and K selection in experimental populations of Escherichia coli. Science 202, 1201-1203.
  10. ^ Barbault, R. (1987). Are still r-selection and K-selection operative concepts? Acta Oecologica-Oecologia Generalis 8, 63-70.
  11. ^ Kuno, E. (1991). Some strange properties of the logistic equation defined with r and K - inherent defects or artifacts. Researches on Population Ecology 33, 33-39.
  12. ^ Getz, W.M. (1993). Metaphysiological and evolutionary dynamics of populations exploiting constant and interactive resources - r-K selection revisited. Evolutionary Ecology 7, 287-305.
  13. ^ Stearns, S.C. (1977). Evolution of life-history traits - critique of theory and a review of data. Ann. Rev. of Ecology and Systematics 8, 145-171.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "R/K_selection_theory". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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