Resolving the life-history trade-off paradox: Measuring resource acquisition to reveal life-history trade-offs over different temporal scales

Lead Research Organisation: British Antarctic Survey
Department Name: Science Programmes


For species and populations to persist, individuals must reproduce. However, there are constraints on reproductive output, because without these, individuals would have limitless young. As such, pivotal models in evolutionary ecology demonstrate a cost to reproduction which manifests as a reduction in survival probability, and hence future reproductive output. However, although studies have modelled individual life-history pathways, they have rarely detected these trade-offs in the wild. Although the trade-off between current and future reproduction is widely accepted to exist, it continues to evade detection. We suggest there are two main reasons why this is the case:

First, the trade-off between current versus future reproduction is driven by resources. These are generally limited so they must be divided between current and future reproductive effort. Attempts to estimate how these resources are allocated are hampered by the inability of most studies to measure actual resource values for each individual. If we don't know how many resources an individual has we can not understand how these are divided between life-history traits.

Second, it is known that individuals can show differences in whether they use their resources for current or future reproduction. But when is the future? To individual A the future may be the next breeding attempt but to individual B the future may be much later in life. However, surprisingly studies fail to model such differences between individuals. Simulations have shown that fixing the temporal scale of trade-offs will fail to detect trade-offs that occur at another temporal scale and hence could be a major driver in masking trade-offs.

Our model system provides data on the reproductive and foraging behaviour of albatrosses at four sites throughout the Southern Ocean. We have evidence from our study system of substantial variation in individual foraging behaviour, and hence the resources available for reproduction. We know that some individuals show variation in reproductive success over short time frames, and others over very long periods of their life. Hence, individual level analyses are required to measure the effects of changes in resources and consequences for reproduction. We will use existing long-term data on breeding behaviour (>100,000 breeding attempts; 63-year time series) and foraging (1305 individuals; 25-year time series), coupled with newly collected data (150 individuals), to examine how individuals vary in the resources they have available, and how they use them.

We expect resource acquisition to be crucial to how many resources are allocated to reproduction, so that by capturing these measures, we will be able to detect previously hidden trade-offs between current and future reproduction. We expect that individuals will pay the cost of reproduction at different time points in the future, and that by allowing these differences to be modelled, we will be able to accurately detect reproductive trade-offs. The environment will change the resources available over time and we predict that some life-history strategies will be under selection as they enable individuals to maximise fitness in a changing climate. By modelling how fitness varies under future climate conditions we can predict how natural selection will act on individual life-history strategies.


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