Questions about individual variation in 'quality' and fitness are of great interest to evolutionary and population ecologists. Such variation can be investigated using either a random effects approach or an approach that relies on identifying observable traits that are themselves correlated with fitness components. We used the latter approach with data from 1,925 individual females of three species of ducks (tufted duck, Aythya fuligula; common pochard, Aythya ferina; northern shoveler, Anas clypeata) sampled on their breeding grounds at Engure Marsh, Latvia, for over 15 years. Based on associations with reproductive output, we selected two traits, one morphological (relative body condition) and one behavioral (relative time of nesting), that can be used to characterize individual females over their lifetimes. We then asked whether these traits were related to annual survival probabilities of nesting females. We hypothesized quadratic, rather than monotonic, relationships based loosely on ideas about the likely action of stabilizing selection on these two traits. Parameters of these relationships were estimated directly using ultrastructural models embedded within capture-recapture-band-recovery models. Results provided evidence that both traits were related to survival in the hypothesized manner. For all three species, females that tended to nest earlier than the norm exhibited the highest survival rates, but very early nesters experienced reduced survival and late nesters showed even lower survival. For shovelers, females in average body condition showed the highest survival, with lower survival rates exhibited by both heavy and light birds. For common pochard and tufted duck, the highest survival rates were associated with birds of slightly above-average condition, with somewhat lower survival for very heavy birds and much lower survival for birds in relatively poor condition. Based on results from this study and previous work on reproduction, we conclude that nest initiation date and body condition covary with both reproductive and survival components of fitness. These associations lead to a positive covariance of these two fitness components within individuals and to the conclusion that these two traits are indeed correlates of individual quality.
Additional publication details
Individual quality, survival variation and patterns of phenotypic selection on body condition and timing of nesting in birds