Plastic Reproductive Strategies in Response to Nest Predation Risk

PhD Dissertation, James Mouton

Life history theory predicts that organisms will allocate limited time and energy between current and future reproduction to maximize lifetime fitness. Age specific mortality can affect this allocation such that increased risk of offspring predation is expected to reduce reproductive value of current broods and decrease reproductive effort. Studies examining mortality patterns and evolved levels of reproductive effort across taxa support theory. Organisms may also plastically adjust overall reproductive effort and the expression of different life history traits (e.g. clutch size, food provisioning behaviors, growth and developmental rates) in response to variation in offspring mortality risk. Such plasticity can have important consequences for the rate of evolution and the persistence of populations in ecological time. However, we know little about plastic responses of life histories to changes in current brood reproductive value caused by offspring predation risk.

My research will examine how reduced brood value caused by nest predation risk affects reproductive effort expended by parents and growth and development in offspring in four songbird species. I will test the effect of nest predation risk on parental effort by manipulating the perceived level of risk and measuring parental energy expenditure. I will examine how nest predation risk affects offspring growth and development through the amount of food received by each nestling or prioritized development of traits required for nestlings to leave the nest and escape nest predation risk (i.e. endothermy and locomotor traits). Understanding the plastic responses of organisms to important sources of selection, such as offspring predation, is vital for a full understanding of life history evolution and can help explain ecological differences between populations. All fieldwork will take place in the in high-elevation forested snowmelt drainages in the Coconino National Forest, AZ.