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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Apr 27;364(1520):1049-58. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0251.

The influence of context-dependent maternal effects on population dynamics: an experimental test.

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  • 1School of Biological Sciences, University of Liverpool, Biosciences Building, Crown Street, Liverpool L69 7ZB, UK.


Parental effects arise when either the maternal or paternal phenotype influences the phenotypes of subsequent generations. Simple analytical models assume maternal effects are a mechanism creating delayed density dependence. Such models predict that maternal effects can very easily lead to population cycles. Despite this, unambiguous maternal-effect mediated cycles have not been demonstrated in any system. Additionally, much evidence has arisen to invalidate the underlying assumption that there is a simple positive correlation between maternal performance and offspring performance. A key issue in understanding how maternal effects may affect population dynamics is determining how the expression of parental effects changes in different environments. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that maternal effects influence population dynamics in a context-dependent way. Populations of the soil mite, Sancassania berlesei, were set up at high density (500 eggs) or low density (50 eggs), with eggs that were either laid by young mothers or old mothers (a previously documented maternal effect in this system). The influence of maternal age on both population and egg and body-size dynamics was only observed in the populations initiated under low density rather than high density. This difference was attributable to the context-dependence of maternal effects at the individual level. In low-density (high food) conditions, maternal effects have an impact on offspring reproductive performance, creating an impact on the population growth rate. In high density (low food), maternal effects impact more on juvenile survival (not adult size or reproduction), creating a smaller impact on the population growth rate. This context dependence of effects at the population level means that, in fluctuating populations, maternal effects cause intermittent delayed density dependence that does not lead to persistent cycles.

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