How should parents adjust the size of their young in response to local environmental cues?

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Abstract

Models of parental investment typically assume that populations are well mixed and homogeneous and have devoted little attention to the impact of spatial variation in the local environment. Here, in a patch-structured model with limited dispersal, we assess to what extent resource-rich and resource-poor mothers should alter the size of their young in response to the local environment in their patch. We show that limited dispersal leads to a correlation between maternal and offspring environments, which favours plastic adjustment of offspring size in response to local survival risk. Strikingly, however, resource-poor mothers are predicted to respond more strongly to local survival risk, whereas resource-rich mothers are predicted to respond less strongly. This lack of sensitivity on the part of resource-rich mothers is favoured because they accrue much of their fitness through dispersing young. By contrast, resource-poor mothers accrue a larger fraction of their fitness through philopatric young and should therefore respond more strongly to local risk. Mothers with more resources gain a larger share of their fitness through dispersing young partly because their fitness in the local patch is constrained by the limited number of local breeding spots. In addition, when resource variation occurs at the patch level, the philopatric offspring of resource-rich mothers face stronger competition from the offspring of other local mothers, who also enjoy abundant resources. The effect of limited local breeding opportunities becomes less pronounced as patch size increases, but the impact of patch-level variation in resources holds up even with many breeders per patch.

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