The relationship between maternal phenotype and offspring quality: do older mothers really produce the best offspring?

Dustin Marshall, Selina Heppell, Stephan Munch, Robert Warner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

121 Citations (Scopus)


Maternal effects are increasingly recognized as important drivers of population dynamics and determinants of evolutionary trajectories. Recently, there has been a proliferation of studies finding or citing a positive relationship between maternal size/age and offspring size or offspring quality. The relationship between maternal phenotype and offspring size is intriguing in that it is unclear why young mothers should produce offspring of inferior quality or fitness. Here we evaluate the underlying evolutionary pressures that may lead to a maternal size/age-offspring size correlation and consider the likelihood that such a correlation results in a positive relationship between the age or size of mothers and the fitness of their offspring. We find that, while there are a number of reasons why selection may favor the production of larger offspring by larger mothers, this change in size is more likely due to associated changes in the maternal phenotype that affect the offspring size-performance relationship. We did not find evidence that the offspring of older females should have intrinsically higher fitness. When we explored this issue theoretically, the only instance in which smaller mothers produce suboptimal offspring sizes is when a (largely unsupported) constraint on maximum offspring size is introduced into the model. It is clear that larger offspring fare better than smaller offspring when reared in the same environment, but this misses a critical point: different environments elicit selection for different optimal sizes of young. We suggest that caution should be exercised when interpreting the outcome of offspring-size experiments when offspring from different mothers are reared in a common environment, because this approach may remove the source of selection (e. g., reproducing in different context) that induced a shift in offspring size in the first place. It has been suggested that fish stocks should be managed to preserve these older age classes because larger mothers produce offspring with a greater chance of survival and subsequent recruitment. Overall, we suggest that, while there are clear and compelling reasons for preserving older females in exploited populations, there is little theoretical justification or evidence that older mothers produce offspring with higher per capita fitness than do younger mothers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2862 - 2873
Number of pages12
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

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