The evolution of simultaneous progressive provisioning revisited: extending the model to overlapping generations

  • Oliver MitesserEmail author
  • Hans-Joachim Poethke
  • Erhard Strohm
  • Thomas Hovestadt
Original Article


“Simultaneous progressive provisioners” feed their offspring gradually as they develop—and typically feed more than one offspring simultaneously (SIM) at a time. In contrast, “sequential mass provisioners” supply offspring one after another (SEQ). Utilizing individual-based simulations, Field (Nature 404:869–871, 2005) compared the lifetime reproductive success of these strategies in different scenarios. Accordingly, SEQ should evolve in the majority of cases—SIM only has an evolutionary benefit if offspring depend on their mothers’ protection until adulthood even past the provisioning period. However, this is only one potential explanation for the evolution of SIM. Here, we present an alternative mechanism for solitary individuals with overlapping generations. We propose an analytical model (comprising Field’s former approach) utilizing growth rate instead of lifetime reproductive success as a measure of fitness. Our model shows that multiplicative geometric effects on fitness would typically compensate for the demographic disadvantages of SIM (due to prolonged dependency) and consequently support the evolution of SIM over SEQ for a wide range of life history parameters. The optimal level of SIM (i.e., the optimal number of eggs laid simultaneously) is determined by offspring development time, survival rates, and foraging efficiency of the mother. Only extreme values of these demographic parameters would favor a transition to SEQ behavior. Our model provides a coherent explanation of selective favoring of SIM over SEQ that may also contribute to understanding why SIM is the dominant strategy among social insect species.

Significance statement

Workers in social insects typically feed several offspring simultaneously while solitary species with parental care—apart from a few exceptions—provision brood cells one after another. The provisioning pattern might play a prominent role in the evolutionary pathway to higher social organization. Based on a novel theoretical approach, we show that geometric growth benefits increase selection pressure towards simultaneous progressive provisioning in species with generation overlap. Such geometric benefits may specifically emerge in seasonal eusocial species. This result alters former assessment of causal mechanisms and extends findings focusing on solitary insects. It adds a new and reasonable explanation for the dominance of simultaneous provisioning among social species.


Parental care Simultaneous provisioning Optimal clutch size Evolutionary model Social insects 



This work was supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Achim Poethke, Thomas Hovestadt, and Oliver Mitesser gratefully acknowledge financial support by the German Research Foundation (DFG), Collaborative Research Center SFB 1047 “Insect timing,” Project C6. We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards


This work was supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG), Collaborative Research Center SFB 1047 “Insect timing,” Project C6.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

There were no animal experiments or field observations in this study.

Informed consent

There were no human participants in this study, but informed consent was obtained from all of those involved in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Theoretical Evolutionary Ecology Group, Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, BiocenterUniversity of WürzburgWürzburgGermany
  2. 2.Field Station FabrikschleichachUniversity of WürzburgRauhenebrachGermany
  3. 3.Department for ZoologyUniversity of RegensburgRegensburgGermany

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