Does the cost of development scale allometrically with offspring size?

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Within many species, larger offspring have higher fitness. While the presence of an offspring size–fitness relationship is canonical in life-history theory, the mechanisms that determine why this relationship exists are unclear. 

Linking metabolic theory to life-history theory could provide a general explanation for why larger offspring often perform better than smaller offspring. In many species, energy reserves at the completion of development drive differences in offspring fitness. Development is costly, so any factor that decreases energy expenditure during development should result in higher energy reserves and thus subsequently offspring fitness. 

Metabolic theory predicts that larger offspring should have relatively lower metabolic rates and thus emerge with a higher level of energy reserves (assuming developmental times are constant). The increased efficiency of development in larger offspring may therefore be an underlying driver of the relationship between offspring size and offspring fitness, but this has not been tested within species. 

To determine how the costs of development scale with offspring size, we measured energy expenditure throughout development in the model organism Danio rerio across a range of natural offspring sizes. We also measured how offspring size affects the length of the developmental period. We then examined how hatchling size and condition scale with offspring size. 

We find that larger offspring have lower mass-specific metabolic rates during development, but develop at the same rate as smaller offspring. Larger offspring also hatch relatively heavier and in better condition than smaller offspring. That the relative costs of development decrease with offspring size may provide a widely applicable explanation for why larger offspring often perform better than smaller offspring. A plain language summary is available for this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)762-772
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2018


  • allometry
  • development
  • embryo size
  • geometric biology
  • maternal effect

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