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Offspring sex-ratio and environmental conditions in a seabird with sex-specific rearing costs: a long-term experimental approach

Abstract

Sex allocation studies among birds and mammals are notoriously inconsistent with theoretical predictions. One explanation is the difficulty of collecting data on costs and benefits of sex-ratio adjustments, which prevents the investigation of underlying assumptions. Some predictions may thus have been tested in species where they should not have been expected. Here, we focus on the “cost of reproduction hypothesis”, which states that parents with low investment capacity should avoid producing the most expensive sex to minimise the decrease in their residual reproductive value. In the black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), sons are energetically more expensive than daughters. Using 10 years of data (1172 chicks from 790 broods) from a long-term feeding experiment, we predicted a stronger decrease in the probability of producing a son with deteriorating environmental conditions among Control than among supplementally Fed parents. To test this prediction, we used three proxies of environmental conditions and a recent sliding window approach. We found no support for our prediction. Hence, we investigated between-year sex-ratio variation in relation to feeding status to detect a response to an unmeasured environmental variable. There was no interaction between year and feeding status, nor any effect of feeding status itself. However, the probability of producing a male increased with time, which could be a response to an oceanic regime shift that occurred around our colony, but that our proxies failed to capture. Our study further highlights the difficulty of explaining sex-ratio variation in long-lived species with complex life-histories where multiple selective pressures can occur simultaneously.

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Fig. 1

Data archiving

The data and R code are archived in the Open Science Framework repository (https://doi.org/10.17605/osf.io/gfpy8; https://osf.io/gfpy8/).

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Acknowledgements

Many volunteer and student field workers assisted in the field. We particularly thank the several camp leaders who supervised Middleton Island field work in one or more seasons: V. A. Gill, C. Sterne, N. A. Bargmann, A. M. Ramey, J. Kotzerka, T. van Nus, L. Agdere, K. Elliott and L. Chivers. We are grateful to the undergraduate students who helped with chick sexing. We also would like to thank Liam Bailey for his help with the climwin analyses, Nina McLean for helpful comments on a previous version and the Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre for access to the chlorophyll-a data. We thank reviewers for their valuable comments on a previous version of this manuscript. Computations were performed on EDB-Calc Cluster which uses software developed by the Rocks(r) Cluster Group (San Diego Supercomputer Center, University of California, San Diego and its contributors), hosted by EDB. We thank P. Solbes for support. Field work was supported by the North Pacific Research Board (Project No. 320, BEST-BSIERP Projects B74, B67, and B77) to S.A.H. and by a Grant from the French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor (IPEV ‘Programme 1162 SexCoMonArc’) to P.B, S.L. and E.D. This work originated in the laboratory “Evolution et Diversité Biologique” (EDB) and was supported by the French Laboratory of Excellence Project “TULIP” (ANR-10-LABX-41; ANR-11-IDEX-0002-02). T.M. was supported by a French doctoral scholarship and a Fyssen post-doctoral fellowship.

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Correspondence to Thomas Merkling.

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All the work was conducted under the approval of the USGS Alaska Science Center Animal Care and Use Committee and the IPEV Ethical Committee, in accordance with United States laws and under permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Alaska. Any use of trade names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Merkling, T., Hatch, S.A., Leclaire, S. et al. Offspring sex-ratio and environmental conditions in a seabird with sex-specific rearing costs: a long-term experimental approach. Evol Ecol 33, 417–433 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10682-019-09983-2

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Keywords

  • Energy expenditure
  • Life-history trade-off
  • Oceanographic conditions
  • Parental effort
  • Reproductive cost