• clonal organisms;
  • demography;
  • density dependence;
  • matrix models;
  • population regulation

1. Density dependence may act at several stages in an organisms life-cycle (e.g. on mortality, fecundity, etc.), but not all density-dependent processes necessarily regulate population size. In this paper I use a density manipulation experiment to determine the effects of density on the transition rates between different size classes of the clonal zoanthid Palythoa caesia Dana 1846. I then formulate a density-dependent matrix model of population dynamics of Palythoa, and perform a series of sensitivity analyses on the model to determine at what stage in the life-cycle regulation acts.

2. Seven of the 16 transition probabilities decreased with density, most of them being shrinkage (due to loss of tissue or fission) and stasis (the self–self transition) of medium and large colonies. The only probability to increase was for the stasis of large colonies. Recruitment was quadratically dependent on density, peaking at intermediate densities.

3. Equilibrium cover in the model was 84% and was reached in ≈40 years. To determine which density-dependent transitions were involved in population regulation, the strength of density dependence was varied in each independently. This sensitivity analysis showed that only changes in the probabilities of large colonies remaining large and producing medium colonies, were regulating.

4. These results suggest that regulation is primarily acting on fission of large colonies to produce intermediate-sized colonies, in combination with size specific growth rates. Fission rates decrease greatly with density, resulting in a greater proportion of large colonies at high densities and large colonies grow more slowly than small. Overall, this behaviour is very similar to that of clonal plants which have a phalanx type life history.