Biennial breeding is a rare life-history trait observed in animal species living in harsh, unproductive environments. This reproductive pattern is thought to occur in 10 of 14 species in the genus Marmota, making marmots useful model organisms for studying its ecological and evolutionary implications. Biennial breeding in marmots has been described as an obligate pattern which evolved as a mechanism to mitigate the energetic costs of reproduction (Evolved Constraint hypothesis). However, recent anecdotal evidence suggests that it is a facultative pattern controlled by annual variation in climate and food availability (Environmental Constraint hypothesis). Finally, in social animals like marmots, biennial breeding could result from reproductive competition between females within social groups (Social Constraint hypothesis). We evaluated these three hypotheses using mark-recapture data from an 8-year study of hoary marmot (Marmota caligata) population dynamics in the Yukon. Annual variation in breeding probability was modeled using multi-state mark-recapture models, while other reproductive life-history traits were modeled with generalized linear mixed models. Hoary marmots were neither obligate nor facultative biennial breeders, and breeding probability was insensitive to evolved, environmental, or social factors. However, newly mature females were significantly less likely to breed than older individuals. Annual breeding did not result in increased mortality. Female survival and, to a lesser extent, average fecundity were correlated with winter climate, as indexed by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Hoary marmots are less conservative breeders than previously believed, and the evidence for biennial breeding throughout Marmota, and in other arctic/alpine/antarctic animals, should be re-examined. Prediction of future population dynamics requires an accurate understanding of life history strategies, and of how life history traits allow animals to cope with changes in weather and other demographic influences.
Cites: Oecologia. 2013 Sep;173(1):139-4923456241
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