The demographic dynamics of three populations of Dioon edule Lindl. (Zamiaceae) were studied in a fragmented landscape using projection matrix modelling. Compared with other plant species, D. edule behaves like a tree life-form species. Density and spatial distribution patterns varied among populations according to models for animal-dispersed tree species. In all scenarios, λ was most sensitive to changes in abundance of adult plants. The elasticity reproductive component (F) for the three populations was zero and stasis values (L) were higher, this being a function of the permanence of non-reproductive individuals. It was detected that disturbance influences the population dynamics of D. edule as a function of adult plant persistence. This observation suggests that the conservation of adult plants is critical for D. edule and perhaps for all cycads species. Adult plant decapitation should be halted at the ‘Monte Oscuro’ population, subjected to sustainable management since 1990, if higher seed production is needed in rural nurseries. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 157, 381–391.