Changing lanes: can we reconcile the ways we measure reproduction so we can make meaningful comparisons across animal species?

Reproduction is perhaps the only truly unambiguous measure of fitness and yet we measure it in different ways. Biologists working on birds tend to measure clutch size as number of eggs per clutch, while mammal biologists focus on litter size measured in mass. These differences only become obvious when researchers want to move out of their accustomed lanes and ask broader questions applicable to a wide range of animal species. One unequivocal measure of reproduction is reproductive mass per year but how often do researchers measure this?

Reproductive mass per year combines the number of offspring per reproductive bout with the mass of the offspring and, importantly, the number of reproductive bouts per year. We know that some species can have a few large offspring and only reproduce once per year whilst other species can produce many small offspring numerous times per year. So which species puts in the most resources to reproduction? Only by combining measures of offspring mass over time can we really compare reproductive effort across species.

How often are all three components of reproductive mass per year – number of offspring per reproductive bout, offspring mass, and the number of reproductive bouts per year – provided for animals?

PhD student, Sam Ginther, is interested in the energetic costs of reproduction and wondered how feasible it would be to collate reproduction data for a wide range of species. Could he translate the existing data into a consistent and biologically relevant measure of reproductive mass per year?

Sam and supervisors Dustin Marshall, Craig White and Hayley Cameron created a ‘systematic map’ of reproductive trait data that exist in online databases. They used this unbiased approach to collate and describe:

  1. how common is the measure reproductive mass per year in databases, and
  2. how well did more ambiguous reproductive measures (i.e., fecundity per bout, fecundity per year, and reproductive mass per bout) represent a truly comparable measure of reproductive effort – reproductive mass per year.

So, can we use other measures as proxies for reproductive mass per year? While most reproductive measures are poor predictors of reproductive effort, reproductive mass per bout is the exception.

Reproductive databases are amazing resources and represent centuries of work in the field of reproductive biology. However, to unlock their full potential Sam and his colleagues feel that the best way forward is to encourage researchers to measure reproduction in a way that allows us to reconstruct reproductive mass per year; that is, tie reproductive measures to temporal- and volumetric-dimensions. But where this is unrealistic in terms of time and effort then measuring reproductive mass per bout is the next best thing.

This research is published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.