Incubation start and egg size in relation to body reserves in the common eider
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Avian incubation is often initiated before all eggs are laid. In altricial birds this has been proposed to facilitate brood reduction through asynchronous hatching. However, in precocial birds eggs normally hatch synchronously even if incubation has started before all eggs are laid. Patterns of incubation start may be the adaptive trait selected for both in altricial and precocial species. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the timing of incubation start in birds. Decreasing egg-size after incubation start may be adaptively related to an early incubation start, either to ensure synchronous hatching or to decrease fitness cost of late hatched eggs. We have measured individual body condition, egg size and start of incubation in common eider Somateria mollissima, a precocial sea-duck which does not feed during the incubation period. Females in poor body condition start to incubate earlier in the laying sequence than those in good body condition. Furthermore females in poor body condition lay smaller final eggs than females in good body condition. The laying of smaller eggs late in the sequence is therefore probably related to energetic or nutritional state. We propose that females in poor body condition start to incubate early to shorten the nest period in order to reduce their mass loss, but at the cost of reduced size and growth of the ducklings from the eggs laid after incubation start. Females in good body condition on the other hand postpone incubation start at the cost of a longer incubation period and a higher mass loss to the benefit of synchronized hatching and a higher survival of ducklings.
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