Patterns, sources, and consequences of variation in age-specific vital rates: Insights from a long-term study of Weddell seals

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Variations in the reproductive and survival abilities of individuals within a population are ubiquitous in nature, key to individual fitness, and affect population dynamics, which leads to strong interest in understanding causes and consequences of vital-rate variation. For long-lived species, long-term studies of large samples of known-age individuals are ideal for evaluating vital-rate variation. A population of Weddell seals in Erebus Bay, Antarctica, has been studied each Austral spring since the 1960s. Since 1982, all newborns have been tagged each year and multiple capture-mark-recapture (CMR) surveys have been conducted annually. Over the past 20 years, a series of analyses have built on results of earlier research by taking advantage of steady improvements in the project's long-term CMR data and available analytical methods. Here, I summarize progress made on four major topics related to variation in age-specific vital rates for females: early-life survival and age at first reproduction, costs of reproduction, demographic buffering, and demographic senescence. Multistate modelling found that age at first reproduction varies widely (4–14 years of age) and identified contrasting influences of maternal age on survival and recruitment rates of offspring. Subsequent analyses of data for females after recruitment revealed costs of reproduction to both survival and future reproduction and provided strong evidence of demographic buffering. Recent results indicated that important levels of among-individual variation exist in vital rates and revealed contrasting patterns for senescence in reproduction and survival. Sources of variation in vital rates include age, reproductive state, year, and individual. The combination of luck and individual quality results in strong variation in individual fitness outcomes: ~80% of females born in the population produce no offspring, and the remaining 20% vary strongly in lifetime reproductive output (range: 1–23 pups). Further research is needed to identify the specific environmental conditions that lead to annual variation in vital rates and to better understand the origins of individual heterogeneity. Work is also needed to better quantify the relative roles of luck, maternal effects, and environmental conditions on variation in vital rates and to learn the importance of such variation to demographic performance of offspring and on overall population dynamics.



Antarctica, life-history evolution, long-term studies, population biology, vital rates, Weddell seals


Rotella, J. J. (2023). Patterns, sources, and consequences of variation in age-specific vital rates: Insights from a long-term study of Weddell seals. Journal of Animal Ecology, 92, 552– 567.
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