Reproductive Timing in a Changing World: Understanding Mechanisms and Costs Associated With Reproductive Timing Decisions
Graham, Jessica Lynn
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Organisms in temperate zones time reproduction to occur when conditions are optimal for raising offspring. However, individuals of many taxa vary in precise timing of breeding. The mechanisms underlying the existing variation are not well understood, particularly in females. I hypothesized that individual variation in daily (i.e., circadian) rhythms, which are highly conserved across taxa, are related to variation in reproductive timing. By measuring activity onset in two species of songbirds, we found that females beginning their day earlier also breed earlier. I further asked if sex-steroid hormones were related to onset of daily activity in free-living individuals. My results show that maximal levels of estradiol are correlated with onset of activity in free-living females. This suggests that circadian rhythms may influence much of the variation seen in timing of breeding and individual physiology influences circadian behavior. In addition to mechanisms underlying reproductive timing, I also investigated potential selective pressures that could act on timing decisions. Early breeding females often produce more and larger offspring, however, most of the population breeds later than this optimum, suggesting there are costs associated with early reproduction. To determine if early breeding females are better able to handle an additional energetic challenge, I injected incubating females with a mild antigen and monitored nest survival in early and late breeders. The immune challenge caused a significant increase in nest failure compared to controls and success did not differ between early and late breeders. Next, using a long-term dataset I asked whether females who breed early experience accelerated rates of aging via telomere loss. I found that early breeding females experience higher telomere attrition compared to females breeding later. Annual change in telomere length was not related to reproductive output, but females experiencing cooler temperatures during egg laying and incubation (i.e., laying earlier in the season) had higher telomere attrition. With telomere loss and length being important determinants of lifespan and longevity, higher telomere attrition in early breeders may be linked with reduced overwinter survival. A better understanding of mechanisms and costs will help determine how populations will adjust to, or suffer from, a changing climate.