We explore the evolution of delayed, size-dependent reproduction in the monocarpic perennial Onopordum illyricum, using a range of mathematical models, parameterized with long-term field data. Analysis of the long-term data indicated that mortality, flowering, and growth were age and size dependent. Using mixed models, we estimated the variance about each of these relationships and also individual-specific effects. For the field populations, recruitment was the main density-dependent process, although there were weak effects of local density on growth and mortality. Using parameterized growth models, which assume plants grow along a deterministic trajectory, we predict plants should flower at sizes approximately 50% smaller than observed in the field. We then develop a simple criterion, termed the "1-yr look-ahead criterion," based on equating seed production now with that of next year, allowing for mortality and growth, to determine at what size a plant should flower. This model allows the incorporation of variance about the growth function and individual-specific effects. The model predicts flowering at sizes approximately double that observed, indicating that variance about the growth curve selects for larger sizes at flowering. The 1-yr look-ahead approach is approximate because it ignores growth opportunities more than 1 yr ahead. To assess the accuracy of this approach, we develop a more complicated dynamic state variable model. Both models give similar results indicating the utility of the 1-yr look-ahead criterion. To allow for temporal variation in the model parameters, we used an individual-based model with a genetic algorithm. This gave very accurate prediction of the observed flowering strategies. Sensitivity analysis of the model suggested that temporal variation in the parameters of the growth equation made waiting to flower more risky, so selected for smaller sizes at flowering. The models clearly indicate the need to incorporate stochastic variation in life-history analyses.
Keywords: delayed reproduction; dynamic state variable model; genetic algorithm; individual‐based model; monocarpic perennial; von Bertalanffy equation.