Intraspecific variation in egg size and egg composition in birds: effects on offspring fitness

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1994 Feb;69(1):35-59. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185x.1994.tb01485.x.


1. There is little unequivocal evidence to date in support of a positive relationship between egg size and offspring fitness in birds. Although 40 studies (of 34 species) have considered the effect of variation in egg size on chick growth and/or survival up to fledgling only 12 studies have controlled for other characters potentially correlated both with egg size and offspring fitness. Of these only two have reported a significant residual effect of egg size on chick growth (in the roseate tern and European blackbird) and three a residual effect on chick survival (all in seabirds: common tern, lesser black-backed gull and kittiwake). 2. More consistent evidence exists, though from fewer studies, for a positive relationship between egg size and offspring fitness early in the chick-rearing period; chick growth and chick survival being dependent on egg size in 8 of 10 studies and 4 of 5 studies respectively. It is suggested that the most important effect of variation in egg size might be in determining the probability of offspring survival in the first few days after hatching. 3. Egg size explains on average 66% of the variation in chick mass at hatching (n = 35 studies) but only 30% of the variation in chick body size (n = 18). When effects of hatching body size are controlled for chick mass remains significantly correlated with egg size, though the reverse is not true. This supports the hypothesis that large eggs give rise to heavier chicks at hatching, i.e., chicks with more nutrient (yolk) reserves, rather than structurally larger chicks. 4. Egg composition increased isometrically with increasing egg size in about half the studies so far reported (n equals approximately 20). However, in seabirds, and some passerines, larger eggs contain disproportionately more albumen, whilst in some waterfowl percentage yolk content increases with increasing egg size. Changes in albumen content largely reflect variation in the water content of eggs, but changes in yolk content involve variation in lipid content, and therefore in egg 'quality.' The adaptive significance of variation in egg composition is considered; females may adjust egg composition facultatively to maximise the benefits to their offspring of increased reproductive investment. 5. Considerations for future research are discussed with particular emphasis on experimental studies and the application of new techniques.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / growth & development*
  • Birds / physiology
  • Eggs* / analysis
  • Female
  • Physical Fitness
  • Survival Rate