Causes and consequences of variation in offspring body mass: meta-analyses in birds and mammals.
Early survival is highly variable and strongly influences observed population growth rates in most vertebrate populations. One of the major potential drivers of survival variation among juveniles is body mass. Heavy juveniles are better fed and have greater body reserves, and are thus assumed to survive better than light individuals. In spite of this, some studies have failed to detect an influence of body mass on offspring survival, questioning whether offspring body mass does indeed consistently influence juvenile survival, or whether this occurs in particular species/environments. Furthermore, the causes for variation in offspring mass are poorly understood, although maternal mass has often been reported to play a crucial role. To understand why offspring differ in body mass, and how this influences juvenile survival, we performed phylogenetically corrected meta-analyses of both the relationship between offspring body mass and offspring survival in birds and mammals and the relationship between maternal mass and offspring mass in mammals. We found strong support for an overall positive effect of offspring body mass on survival, with a more pronounced influence in mammals than in birds. An increase of one standard deviation of body mass increased the odds of offspring survival by 71% in mammals and by 44% in birds. A cost of being too fat in birds in terms of flight performance might explain why body mass is a less reliable predictor of offspring survival in birds. We then looked for moderators explaining the among-study differences reported in the intensity of this relationship. Surprisingly, sex did not influence the intensity of the offspring mass–survival relationship and phylogeny only accounted for a small proportion of observed variation in the intensity of that relationship. Among the potential factors that might affect the relationship between mass and survival in juveniles, only environmental conditions was influential in mammals. Offspring survival was most strongly influenced by body mass in captive populations and wild populations in the absence of predation. We also found support for the expected positive effect of maternal mass on offspring mass in mammals (rpearson = 0.387). As body mass is a strong predictor of early survival, we expected heavier mothers to allocate more to their offspring, leading them to be heavier and so to have a higher survival. However, none of the potential factors we tested for variation in the maternal mass–offspring mass relationship had a detectable influence. Further studies should focus on linking these two relationships to determine whether a strong effect of offspring size on early survival is associated with a high correlation coefficient between maternal mass and offspring mass.