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Life history consequences of variation in age at primiparity in northern elephant seals

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Summary

The age when female northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris, bear their first young varies from 2 to 6 years. At Año Nuevo, California, a group of 77 females, primiparous at age 3, had a lower survivorship rate to each successive year up to age 8 than a group of 98 females that deferred initial pupping until age 4. The difference in survivorship appears to be due to the greater relative energetic costs of gestation and lactation incurred by the earlier breeding females during a period in their development when growth is rapid. An alternate hypothesis for the difference in survivorship — that young primiparous females are in poor condition from birth-is untenable; females that pupped early in life were larger at weaning age (a correlate of condition) than females that were primiparous 1 year later.

Models based on the data show that differential survival of seals that vary in age at primiparity has important consequences for population growth and life history strategies. The effect of age at primiparity on the rate of increase of populations varies with colony density and juvenile survivorship. The optimal life history strategy for female elephant seals under most conditions existing today, including those at Ano Nuevo during the study period, is to bear the first offspring at age 4. Primiparity at age 3 is projected to be favored when harem density is very low and weaning success and juvenile survivorship are high; postponement of first breeding to age 5 is expected at high harem densities with intense competition for breeding space.

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Reiter, J., Le Boeuf, B.J. Life history consequences of variation in age at primiparity in northern elephant seals. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 28, 153–160 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00172166

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