Egg size and offspring quality: a meta-analysis in birds

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2011 Aug;86(3):692-716. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00166.x. Epub 2010 Nov 10.


Parents affect offspring fitness by propagule size and quality, selection of oviposition site, quality of incubation, feeding of dependent young, and their defence against predators and parasites. Despite many case studies on each of these topics, this knowledge has not been rigorously integrated into individual parental care traits for any taxon. Consequently, we lack a comprehensive, quantitative assessment of how parental care modifies offspring phenotypes. This meta-analysis of 283 studies with 1805 correlations between egg size and offspring quality in birds is intended to fill this gap. The large sample size enabled testing of how the magnitude of the relationship between egg size and offspring quality depends on a number of variables. Egg size was positively related to nearly all studied offspring traits across all stages of the offspring life cycle. Not surprisingly, the relationship was strongest at hatching but persisted until the post-fledging stage. Morphological traits were the most closely related to egg size but significant relationships were also found with hatching success, chick survival, and growth rate. Non-significant effect sizes were found for egg fertility, chick immunity, behaviour, and life-history or sexual traits. Effect size did not depend on whether chicks were raised by their natural parents or were cross-fostered to other territories. Effect size did not depend on species-specific traits such as developmental mode, clutch size, and relative size of the egg, but was larger if tested in captive compared to wild populations and between rather than within broods. In sum, published studies support the view that egg size affects juvenile survival. There are very few studies that tested the relationship between egg size and the fecundity component of offspring fitness, and no studies on offspring survival as adults or on global fitness. More data are also needed for the relationships between egg size and offspring behavioural and physiological traits. It remains to be established whether the relationship between egg size and offspring performance depends on the quality of the offspring environment. Positive effect sizes found in this study are likely to be driven by a causal effect of egg size on offspring quality. However, more studies that control for potential confounding effects of parental post-hatching care, genes, and egg composition are needed to establish firmly this causal link.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Genetic Fitness
  • Longevity / physiology*
  • Ovum / cytology
  • Ovum / physiology*