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Ecology. 2009 Jul;90(7):1981-95.

Individual quality, early-life conditions, and reproductive success in contrasted populations of large herbivores.

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Department de Biologie, Université Laval, 1045 Avenue de la Médecine, Québec, Québec G1VOA6, Canada.


Variations among individuals in phenotypic quality and fitness often confound analyses of life-history strategies assessed at the population level. We used detailed long-term data from three populations of large herbivores with generation times ranging from four to nine years to quantify heterogeneity in individual quality among females, and to assess its influence on mean annual reproductive success over the lifetime (MRS). We also determined how environmental conditions in early life shaped individual quality and tested A. Lomnicki's hypothesis that variance in individual quality should increase when environmental conditions deteriorate. Using multivariate analyses (PCA), we identified one (in sheep and deer) or two (in goats) covariations among life-history traits (longevity, success in the last breeding opportunity, adult mass, and social rank) as indexes of individual quality that positively influenced MRS of females. Individual quality was reduced by unfavorable weather, low resource availability, and high population density in the year of birth. Early-life conditions accounted for 35-55% of variation in individual quality. In roe deer, we found greater variance in individual quality for cohorts born under unfavorable conditions as opposed to favorable ones, but the opposite was found in bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Our results demonstrate that heterogeneity in female quality can originate from environmental conditions in early life and can markedly influence the fitness of females in species located at different positions along the slow-fast continuum of life-history strategies.

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