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The concept of trade-off is paradigmatic in life-history theory. an organism can only acquire a finite amount of energy in its lifetime, so it must “choose” how to allocate that energy to growth and survival or reproduction. Reproduction is assumed to be costly so that individuals who spend more on reproduction, for example by laying more eggs, will not survive as well. We suppose that over evolutionary time, natural selection will act on genetic variation for these allocation decisions, so that the sequence of decisions over an individual’s lifetime will represent an optimal allocation of resources.

Unfortunately this intuitively appealing idea has been very hard to find in nature. In fact, many studies have come up with positive correlations: animals that reproduce more tend to survive better. A recent study by Eduardo Santos and S. Nakagawa found that this trade-off was almost impossible to detect in most studies, or non-existent altogether. In a meta-analysis of brood supplementation studies (researchers added eggs to the nests of breeding birds), they found little impact on survival. Their result held across all the major taxonomic groups of birds, the biggest division being between passerines (songbirds, crows, flycatchers, etc) and non-passerines (ducks, loons, parrots, woodpeckers). Regardless of overall “lifestyle” the birds tested in most studies were able to withstand the hypothesized survival cost of additional eggs dumped on them by researchers.

Bird - Seagull enjoying the sunset

Why would this be the case? As always there is the possibility that the studies were poorly designed, or that brood supplementation is not a good way to test for a trade-off. Particularly, brood supplementation only taxes the parents of their ability to defend and feed offspring; it does nothing to the energy that females put into egg production. The other possibility is that adult birds just don’t put that much effort into reproduction in the first place. Perhaps survival is far more important. The trade-off is still there, but it’s just not important for most birds.

The hypothesis that life is just not as Malthusian as we have often supposed in evolutionary biology intrigues me greatly. If evolution acted in the “well-oiled machine” manner that many laypeople and professional scientists find appealing, then we’d expect selection to push annual reproduction right up to the level allowed by the trade-off. What studies have found is birds putting minimal effort into reproduction, parenting or anything that affects their survival. This means that selection is a lot weaker than we expect: this gives genetic drift a lot more room to account for polymorphism. It also makes sexual selection more plausible: if most species have fairly conservative lifestyles and selection for survival is not that strong, then males (or females) can afford costly ornaments.

An unrelated study also appeared this week that is getting a lot of press: researchers in Iceland found a strong relationship between the age of fathers and mutations passed to their offspring. This is the first study to quantify the per-year effect of paternal age on offspring mutations in humans, so it’s a pretty big deal. I will talk more about this in a future posting since it’s related to my dissertation research, but in the meantime, go read the article and enjoy the flurry of debate surrounding it.

E. S. A. Santos, S. Nakagawa (2012). The costs of parental care: a meta-analysis of the trade-off between parental effort and survival in birds Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 25, 1911-1917 DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2012.02569.x