Life history theory posits that the schedule and duration of key events in an organism's lifetime are shaped by natural selection to produce the largest possible number of surviving offspring. These events, notably juvenile development, age of sexual maturity, first reproduction, number of offspring and level of parental investment, senescence and death, depend on the physical and ecological environment of the organism. Organisms have evolved a great variety of life histories, from Pacific salmon, which produce thousands of eggs at one time and then die, to human beings, which produce a few offspring over the course of decades. The theory depends on principles of evolutionary biology and ecology and is widely used in other areas of science.
Life history characteristics are traits that affect the life table of an organism, and can be imagined as various investments in growth, reproduction, and survivorship.
The goal of life history theory is to understand the variation in such life history strategies. This knowledge can be used to construct models to predict what kinds of traits will be favored in different environments. Without constraints, the highest fitness would belong to a Darwinian Demon, a hypothetical organism for whom such trade-offs do not exist. The key to life history theory is that there are limited resources available, and focusing on only a few life history characteristics is necessary.
Examples of some major life history characteristics include:
Variations in these characteristics reflect different allocations of an individual's resources (i.e., time, effort, and energy expenditure) to competing life functions. For any given individual, available resources in any particular environment are finite. Time, effort, and energy used for one purpose diminishes the time, effort, and energy available for another.
For example, birds with larger broods are unable to afford more prominent secondary sexual characteristics . Life history characteristics will, in some cases, change according to the population density, since genotypes with the highest fitness at high population densities will not have the highest fitness at low population densities. Other conditions, such as the stability of the environment, will lead to selection for certain life history traits. Experiments by Michael R. Rose and Brian Charlesworth showed that unstable environments selected for flies with both shorter lifespans and higher fecundity.
Reproductive value models the tradeoffs between reproduction, growth, and survivorship. An organism's reproductive value (RV) is defined as its expected contribution to the population through both current and future reproduction:
RV = Current Reproduction + Residual Reproductive Value (RRV)
The residual reproductive value represents an organism's future reproduction through its investment in growth and survivorship. The cost-of-reproduction hypothesis predicts that higher investment in current reproduction hinders growth and survivorship and reduces future reproduction, while investments in growth will pay off with higher fecundity (number of offspring produced) and reproductive episodes in the future. This cost-of-reproduction tradeoff influences major life history characteristics. For example, a 2009 study by J. Creighton, N. Heflin, and M. Belk on burying beetles provided "unconfounded support" for the costs of reproduction. The study found that beetles that had allocated too many resources to current reproduction also had the shortest lifespans. In their lifetimes, they also had the fewest reproductive events and offspring, reflecting how over-investment in current reproduction lowers residual reproductive value.
The related terminal investment hypothesis describes a shift to current reproduction with higher age. At early ages, RRV is typically high, and organisms should invest in growth to increase reproduction at a later age. As organisms age, this investment in growth gradually increases current reproduction. However, when an organism grows old and begins losing physiological function, mortality increases while fecundity decreases. This senescence shifts the reproduction tradeoff towards current reproduction: the effects of aging and higher risk of death make current reproduction more favorable. The burying beetle study also supported the terminal investment hypothesis: the authors found beetles that bred later in life also had increased brood sizes, reflecting greater investment in those reproductive events.
The selection pressures that determine the reproductive strategy, and therefore much of the life history, of an organism can be understood in terms of r/K selection theory. The central trade-off to life history theory is the number of offspring vs. the timing of reproduction. Organisms that are r-selected have a high growth rate (r) and tend to produce a high number of offspring with minimal parental care; their lifespans also tend to be shorter. R-selected organisms are suited to life in an unstable environment, because they reproduce early and abundantly and allow for a low survival rate of offspring. K-selected organisms subsist near the carrying capacity of their environment (K), produce a relatively low number of offspring over a longer span of time, and have high parental investment. They are more suited to life in a stable environment in which they can rely on a long lifespan and a low mortality rate that will allow them to reproduce multiple times with a high offspring survival rate.
Some organisms that are very r-selected are semelparous, only reproducing once before they die. Semelparous organisms may be short-lived, like annual crops. However, some semelparous organisms are relatively long-lived, such as the African flowering plant Lobelia telekii which spends up to several decades growing an inflorescence that blooms only once before the plant dies, or the periodical cicada which spends 17 years as a larva before emerging as an adult. Organisms with longer lifespans are usually iteroparous, reproducing more than once in a lifetime. However, iteroparous organisms can be more r-selected than K-selected, such as a sparrow, which gives birth to several chicks per year but lives only a few years, as compared to a wandering albatross, which first gives birth at ten years old and breeds every other year during its 40 year lifespan.
r-selected organisms usually:
K-selected organisms usually:
Many factors can determine the evolution of an organism's life history, especially the unpredictability of the environment. Organisms that live in a very unpredictable environment—one in which resources, hazards, and competitors may fluctuate rapidly—selects for organisms that produce more offspring earlier in their lives, because it is never certain whether they will survive to reproduce again. Mortality rate may be the best indicator of a species' life history: organisms with high mortality rate—the usual result of an unpredictable environment—typically mature earlier than those species with low mortality rates, and give birth to more offspring at a time. A highly unpredictable environment can also lead to plasticity, in which individual organisms can shift along the spectrum of r-selected vs. K-selected life histories to suit the environment.
Life history theory has provided new perspectives in understanding many aspects of human reproductive behavior, such as the relationship between poverty and fertility. A number of statistical predictions have been confirmed by social data and there is a large body of scientific literature from studies in experimental animal models, and naturalistic studies among many organisms.
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