A population is a group of interbreeding organisms that are members of the same species living in the same area at the same time. (Organisms that are all members of the same species are called conspecifics.) A population is identified, in part, by where it lives, and its area of population may have natural or artificial boundaries. Natural boundaries might be rivers, mountains, or deserts, while artificial boundaries may be mowed grass, manmade structures, or roads. The study of population ecology focuses on the number of individuals in an area and how and why population size changes over time.
For example, population ecologists are particularly interested in counting the Karner blue butterfly because it is classified as a federally endangered species. However, the distribution and density of this species is highly influenced by the distribution and abundance of wild lupine, and the biophysical environment around it. Researchers might ask questions about the factors leading to the decline of wild lupine and how these affect Karner blue butterflies. For example, ecologists know that wild lupine thrives in open areas where trees and shrubs are largely absent. In natural settings, intermittent wildfires regularly remove trees and shrubs, helping to maintain the open areas that wild lupine requires. Mathematical models can be used to understand how wildfire suppression by humans has led to the decline of this important plant for the Karner blue butterfly.