Recent Advances and Current Challenges in Applying Source-Sink Theory to Species Conservation

  • Julie A. HeinrichsEmail author
  • Lauren E. Walker
  • Joshua J. Lawler
  • Nathan H. Schumaker
  • Kira C. Monroe
  • Amy D. Bleisch
Interface of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology (J Watling, SECTION EDITOR)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Interface of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology


Purpose of Review

The source-sink paradigm has been a powerful tool for focusing theoretical and empirical explorations of population dynamics in heterogeneous landscapes. The prevalence of suspected source-sink dynamics in empirical studies would lead to the conclusion that sources and sinks are common. However, important questions remain about how source-sink dynamics have been assessed in past studies and the degree to which current approaches apply to atypical populations and dynamic landscapes.

Recent Findings

We reviewed 432 papers that directly addressed source-sink dynamics between 1985 and 2018. We found that the majority of studies focused on birds, mammals, and forested systems. In recent years, however, the number of aquatic invertebrate and marine studies increased, as did the tendency to focus on conservation or management goals and to report population trends. Although 79% of papers claimed to identify source-sink dynamics, only 13% of studies based their assessment on all four measures of reproduction, mortality, immigration, and emigration. Nearly 23% of all studies used neither demographic nor movement metrics to make conclusions about the presence of source-sink dynamics.


Source-sink theory and practice has matured and is increasingly relevant for species conservation and management. However, we lack a clear understanding of the conditions under which limited data can defensibly support source-sink assessments and be scaled up to the extent at which resource decisions are made. In the absence of this, future studies will need to take a more rigorous approach to defining sources and sinks to better gauge the prevalence of source-sink dynamics.


Source-sink dynamics Source Sink Review Conservation Metapopulation 



Aaron Sidder assisted with evaluating papers.

Author Contributions

JH, JL, and LW conceived of the study and developed the methods. LW, JH, KM, and AB reviewed and evaluated papers. JH, LW, JH, and NS wrote the manuscript.

Funding Information

Funding was provided by SERDP grant RC-2120.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.

Supplementary material

40823_2019_39_MOESM1_ESM.docx (499 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 499 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environmental and Forest SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Natural Resource Ecology LaboratoryColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Yellowstone Center for ResourcesYellowstone National ParkUSA
  4. 4.Department of Fisheries and WildlifeOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA

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