Long-term fitness consequences of early environment in a long-lived ungulate

Proc Biol Sci. 2017 Apr 26;284(1853):20170222. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0222.


Cohort effects can be a major source of heterogeneity and play an important role in population dynamics. Silver-spoon effects, when environmental quality at birth improves future performance regardless of the adult environment, can induce strong lagged responses on population growth. Alternatively, the external predictive adaptive response (PAR) hypothesis predicts that organisms will adjust their developmental trajectory and physiology during early life in anticipation of expected adult conditions but has rarely been assessed in wild species. We used over 40 years of detailed individual monitoring of bighorn ewes (Ovis canadensis) to quantify long-term cohort effects on survival and reproduction. We then tested both the silver-spoon and the PAR hypotheses. Cohort effects involved a strong interaction between birth and current environments: reproduction and survival were lowest for ewes that were born and lived at high population densities. This interaction, however, does not support the PAR hypothesis because individuals with matching high-density birth and adult environments had reduced fitness. Instead, individuals born at high density had overall lower lifetime fitness suggesting a silver-spoon effect. Early-life conditions can induce long-term changes in fitness components, and their effects on cohort fitness vary according to adult environment.

Keywords: climate; cohort effects; density dependence; predictive adaptive response; silver-spoon; ungulate.

MeSH terms

  • Alberta
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Genetic Fitness
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Population Density
  • Population Dynamics
  • Reproduction / physiology*
  • Sheep, Bighorn / physiology*
  • Survival Rate
  • Weaning
  • Weather