The early‐life environment and individual plasticity in life‐history traits

Ornela De Gasperin, Ana Duarte, Sinead English, Alfredo Attisano, Rebecca Kilner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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We tested whether the early‐life environment can influence the extent of individual plasticity in a life‐history trait. We asked: can the early‐life environment explain why, in response to the same adult environmental cue, some individuals invest more than others in current reproduction? Moreover, can it additionally explain why investment in current reproduction trades off against survival in some individuals, but is positively correlated with survival in others? We addressed these questions using the burying beetle, which breeds on small carcasses and sometimes carries phoretic mites. These mites breed alongside the beetle, on the same resource, and are a key component of the beetle's early‐life environment. We exposed female beetles to mites twice during their lives: during their development as larvae and again as adults during their first reproductive event. We measured investment in current reproduction by quantifying average larval mass and recorded the female's life span after breeding to quantify survival. We found no effect of either developing or breeding alongside mites on female reproductive investment, nor on her life span, nor did developing alongside mites influence her size. In post hoc analyses, where we considered the effect of mite number (rather than their mere presence/absence) during the female's adult breeding event, we found that females invested more in current reproduction when exposed to greater mite densities during reproduction, but only if they had been exposed to mites during development as well. Otherwise, they invested less in larvae at greater mite densities. Furthermore, females that had developed with mites exhibited a trade‐off between investment in current reproduction and future survival, whereas these traits were positively correlated in females that had developed without mites. The early‐life environment thus generates individual variation in life‐history plasticity. We discuss whether this is because mites influence the resources available to developing young or serve as important environmental cues.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)339-351
Number of pages13
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number1
Early online date30 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


  • burying beetles
  • developmental plasticity
  • early life effects
  • environment matching
  • informational model
  • life-history trade-offs, phoretic mites, silver spoon
  • somatic model

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