Incorporating the temporal autocorrelation of demographic rates into structured population models

Population dynamics are typically temporally autocorrelated: population sizes are positively or negatively correlated with past population sizes. Previous studies have found that positive temporal autocorrelation increases the risk of extinction due to ‘inertia’ that prolongs downward fluctuations in population size. However, temporal autocorrelation has not yet been analyzed at the level of life cycle transitions. We developed an R package, colorednoise, which creates stochastic matrix population projections with distinct temporal autocorrelation values for each matrix element. We used it to analyze long-term demographic data on 25 populations from the COMADRE and COMPADRE databases and simulate their stochastic dynamics. We found a broad range of temporal autocorrelation across species, populations and life cycle stages. The number of stage-classes in the matrix strongly affected the temporal autocorrelation of the growth rate. In the plant populations, reproduction transitions had more negative temporal autocorrelation than survival transitions, and matrices dominated by positive temporal autocorrelation had higher extinction risk, while in animal populations transition type was not associated with noise color. Our results indicate that temporal autocorrelation varies across life cycle transitions, even among populations of the same species. We present the colorednoise package for researchers to analyze the temporal autocorrelation of structured demographic rates.