Population fluctuations are generally attributed to the deterministic consequences of strong non-linear interactions among organisms, or the effects of random stochastic environmental variation superimposed upon the deterministic skeleton describing population change. Analysis of the population dynamics of the mussel Mytilus californianus taken in 16 plots over 18-years found no evidence that these processes explained observed strong fluctuations. Instead, population fluctuations arose because environmental stochasticity varied with abundance, which we term density-linked stochasticity. This phenomenon arises from biologically relevant mechanisms: recruitment variation and transmission of disturbance among neighboring individuals. Density-linked stochasticity is probably present frequently in populations, as it arises naturally from several general ecological processes, including stage structure variation with density, ontogenetic niche shifts, and local transmission of stochastic perturbations. More thoroughly characterizing and interpreting deviations from the mean behavior of a system will lead to better ecological prediction and improved insight into the important processes affecting populations and ecosystems.