1. Plant demographers using matrix tools have paid special attention to vital rates of reproduction, growth and survival. The demographic implications of plants regressing in size, or shrinking, have been overlooked. Shrinkage has either been ignored during demographic censuses or lumped with other demographic processes such as stasis or growth under the assumption that they have similar demographic effects.
2. We carried out a comparative prospective analysis using classical vital rate elasticities in size-based projection matrices of 80 herbaceous perennial species. We analysed the correlations of the elasticities of each demographic vital rate with the demographic life-history traits (life span, population growth rate, etc.).
3. We also conducted a comparative loop analysis to understand the effects of shrinkage on demographic parameters linked to size plasticity. We classified loops into ‘recruitment’ (growth that contributes to reproduction), ‘size plasticity’ (where individuals fluctuate in size) and ‘size rigidity’ (no change in size class), and used them as the basis to explain ecological characteristics of the species.
4. Our results with classical vital rates demonstrate that considering shrinkage as a separate vital rate increases our understanding of factors that contribute to demographic equilibrium (e.g. minimized departure from population growth rate at equilibrium) and buffering (e.g. higher speed of recovery after disturbance), and to reproductive strategies (e.g. mean age of parents of offspring).
5. The loop analysis results support the findings with vital rate analyses and also reveal new patterns: high growth rates are not exclusively dominated by high elasticities of recruitment, but also by size-plastic loops, and long-lived species experience a marginal increase in the demographic importance of size plasticity.
6.Synthesis. This study illustrates the necessity for exploring individual demographic vital rates, as opposed to grouping them, to advance our understanding of how different biological processes affect population dynamics. Shrinkage is demographically important because it aids in demographic buffering, increases survival and is related to maintenance–reproduction trade-offs. However, shrinkage cannot be fully explored only with traditional elasticity approaches; because shrinkage for some species is a fundamental plastic trait, its importance is more appropriately captured with loop analyses.