Density-related reproductive costs and natal conditions predict male life history in a highly polygynous mammal


Polygynous males allocate substantial resources to sexual traits and behaviours to improve their chances of winning competitions for mates often at the cost of body maintenance. However, the degree to which males experience these trade-offs can be influenced by external conditions. Studies are needed that assess whether polygynous male resource allocation decisions about life history traits are density dependent. We tested for an influence of density on age-specific life history traits in male southern elephant seals, Mirounga leonina, using a 34-year data set collected at Marion Island. Specifically, we determine whether life history varied with density-related factors for survival, improved breeding success (measured as social status) and recruitment age. This was done by selecting linear models that tested biological hypotheses about density-dependent covariates related to competition intensity during breeding and natal conditions, while accounting for known intrinsic effects such as age and social status. Baseline mortalities were higher for males that had accumulated above average reproductive costs for their age than males with below average costs. This reproductive cost was determined by the number of females per harem relative to the population average. Thus, males likely allocated more resources to reproduction and less to body maintenance at all ages when defending and servicing relatively large harems, and this cost was compounding for males that dominated large harems at a young age. Males born in years with few pups were more likely to be dominant breeders and recruit at an earlier age than males born in years with many pups. Thus, breeding success and recruitment age likely depended on the population density experienced during early life, suggesting lasting effects of natal conditions in a long-lived animal. We show how density-dependent factors interact with intrinsic determinants of resource allocation to determine variation in polygynous male life history with long-term consequences.



breeding improvement, cohort size, competition intensity, cumulative reproductive cost, Marion Island, recruitment age, senescence, southern elephant seal, trade-off hypothesis


Lloyd, K. J., Oosthuizen, W. C., Rotella, J. J., Bester, M. N., & de Bruyn, P. N. (2023). Density-related reproductive costs and natal conditions predict male life history in a highly polygynous mammal. Animal Behaviour, 200, 183-197.
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