A global synthesis of offspring size variation, its eco‐evolutionary causes and consequences

Authors: Dustin J Marshall, Amanda K Pettersen, and Hayley Cameron

Published in: Functional Ecology, volume 32, issue 6 (June 2018)


Offspring size is a key functional trait that can affect all phases of the life history, from birth to reproduction, and is common to all the Metazoa. Despite its ubiquity, reviews of this trait tend to be taxon‐specific. We explored the causes and consequences of offspring size variation across plants, invertebrates and vertebrates.

We find that offspring size shows clear latitudinal patterns among species: fish, amphibians, invertebrates and birds show a positive covariation in offspring size with latitude; plants and turtles show a negative covariation with latitude. We highlight the developmental window hypothesis as an explanation for why plants and turtles show negative covariance with latitude. Meanwhile, we find evidence for stronger, positive selection on offspring size at higher latitudes for most animals.

Offspring size also varies at all scales of organization, from populations through to broods from the same female. We explore the reasons for this variation and suspect that much of this variation is adaptive, but in many cases, there are too few tests to generalize.

We show that larger offspring lose relatively less energy during development to independence such that larger offspring may have greater net energy budgets than smaller offspring. Larger offspring therefore enter the independent phase with relatively more energy reserves than smaller offspring. This may explain why larger offspring tend to outperform smaller offspring but more work on how offspring size affects energy acquisition is needed.

While life‐history theorists have been fascinated by offspring size for over a century, key knowledge gaps remain. One important next step is to estimate the true energy costs of producing offspring of different sizes and numbers.

Marshall DJ, Pettersen AK, Cameron H (2018) A global synthesis of offspring size variation, its eco-evolutionary causes and consequences, Functional Ecology, PDF DOI