The demographic consequences of stochasticity in processes such as survival and reproduction are modulated by the heterogeneity within the population. Therefore, to study effects of stochasticity on population growth and extinction risk, it is critical to use structured population models in which the most important sources of heterogeneity (e.g. age, size, developmental stage) are incorporated as i‐state variables.
Demographic stochasticity in heterogeneous populations has often been studied using one of two approaches: multitype branching processes and diffusion approximations. Here, we link these approaches, through the demographic stochasticity in age‐ or stage‐structured matrix population models. We derive the demographic variance, σ2d, which measures the per capita contribution to the variance in population growth increment, and we show how it can be decomposed into contributions from transition probabilities and fertility across ages or stages. Furthermore, using matrix calculus we derive the sensitivity of σ2d to age‐ or stage‐specific mortality and fertility. We apply the methods to an extensive set of data from age‐classified human populations (long‐term time‐series for Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands; two hunter–gatherer populations, and the high‐fertility Hutterites), and to a size‐classified population of the herbaceous plant Calathea ovandensis. For the human populations our analysis reveals substantial temporal changes in the demographic variance as well as its main components across age.
These new methods provide a powerful approach for calculating the demographic variance for any structured model, and for analyzing its main components and sensitivities. This will make possible new analyses of demographic variance across different kinds of heterogeneity in different life cycles, which will in turn improve our understanding of mechanisms underpinning extinction risk and other important biological outcomes.