Variation in the vital rates of an Antarctic marine predator: the role of individual heterogeneity

By: , and 



Variation in life‐history traits such as lifespan and lifetime reproductive output is thought to arise, in part, due to among‐individual differences in the underlying probabilities of survival and reproduction. However, the stochastic nature of demographic processes can also generate considerable variation in fitness‐related traits among otherwise‐identical individuals. An improved understanding of life‐history evolution and population dynamics therefore depends on evaluating the relative role of each of these processes. Here, we used a 33‐yr data set with reproductive histories for 1,274 female Weddell seals from Erebus Bay, Antarctica, to assess the strength of evidence for among‐individual heterogeneity in the probabilities of survival and reproduction, while accounting for multiple other sources of variation in vital rates. Our analysis used recent advances in Bayesian model selection techniques and diagnostics to directly compare model fit and predictive power between models that included individual effects on survival and reproduction to those that did not. We found strong evidence for costs of reproduction to both survival and future reproduction, with breeders having rates of survival and subsequent reproduction that were 3% and 6% lower than rates for non‐breeders. We detected age‐related changes in the rates of survival and reproduction, but the patterns differed for the two rates. Survival rates steadily declined from 0.92 at age 7 to 0.56 at the maximal age of 31 yr. In contrast, reproductive rates increased from 0.68 at age 7 to 0.79 at age 16 and then steadily declined to 0.37 for the oldest females. Models that included individual effects explained more variation in observed life histories and had better estimated predictive power than those that did not, indicating their importance in understanding sources of variation among individuals in life‐history traits. We found that among‐individual heterogeneity in survival was small relative to that for reproduction. Our study, which found patterns of variation in vital rates that are consistent with a series of predictions from life‐history theory, is the first to provide a thorough assessment of variation in important vital rates for a long‐lived, high‐latitude marine mammal while taking full advantage of recent developments in model evaluation.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Variation in the vital rates of an Antarctic marine predator: the role of individual heterogeneity
Series title Ecology
DOI 10.1002/ecy.2481
Volume 99
Issue 10
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Description 12 p.
First page 2385
Last page 2396