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Life History Theory

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Title: Life History Theory  
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Subject: Eric Charnov, Human behavioral ecology, Semelparity and iteroparity, Diversity of fish, Auxospore
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Life History Theory

Life history theory posits that the schedule and duration of key events in an evolutionary biology and ecology and is widely used in other areas of science.

Life history characteristics

Life history characteristics are traits that affect the life table of an organism, and can be imagined as various investments in growth, reproduction, and survivorship.

The goal of life history theory is to understand the variation in such life history strategies. This knowledge can be used to construct models to predict what kinds of traits will be favoured in different environments. Without constraints, the highest fitness would belong to a Darwinian Demon, a hypothetical organism for whom such trade-offs do not exist. The key to life history theory is that there are limited resources available, and focusing on only a few life history characteristics is necessary.

Examples of some major life history characteristics include:

  • Age at first reproductive event
  • Reproductive lifespan and ageing
  • Number and size of offspring

Variations in these characteristics reflect different allocations of an individual's resources (i.e., time, effort, and energy expenditure) to competing life functions. For any given individual, available resources in any particular environment are finite. Time, effort, and energy used for one purpose diminishes the time, effort, and energy available for another.

For example, birds with larger broods are unable to afford more prominent secondary sexual characteristics.[1] Life history characteristics will, in some cases, change according to the population density, since genotypes with the highest fitness at high population densities will not have the highest fitness at low population densities.[2] Other conditions, such as the stability of the environment, will lead to selection for certain life history traits. Experiments by [3]

Biological tradeoffs also appear to characterize the life histories of viruses, including bacteriophages.[4]

Reproductive value and costs of reproduction


RV = Current Reproduction + Residual Reproductive Value (RRV)

The residual reproductive value represents an organism's future reproduction through its investment in growth and survivorship. The cost-of-reproduction hypothesis predicts that higher investment in current reproduction hinders growth and survivorship and reduces future reproduction, while investments in growth will pay off with higher fecundity (number of offspring produced) and reproductive episodes in the future. This cost-of-reproduction tradeoff influences major life history characteristics. For example, a 2009 study by J. Creighton, N. Heflin, and M. Belk on burying beetles provided "unconfounded support" for the costs of reproduction.[6] The study found that beetles that had allocated too many resources to current reproduction also had the shortest lifespans. In their lifetimes, they also had the fewest reproductive events and offspring, reflecting how over-investment in current reproduction lowers residual reproductive value.

The related terminal investment hypothesis describes a shift to current reproduction with higher age. At early ages, RRV is typically high, and organisms should invest in growth to increase reproduction at a later age. As organisms age, this investment in growth gradually increases current reproduction. However, when an organism grows old and begins losing physiological function, mortality increases while fecundity decreases. This senescence shifts the reproduction tradeoff towards current reproduction: the effects of aging and higher risk of death make current reproduction more favorable. The burying beetle study also supported the terminal investment hypothesis: the authors found beetles that bred later in life also had increased brood sizes, reflecting greater investment in those reproductive events.[7]

r/K selection theory

The selection pressures that determine the reproductive strategy, and therefore much of the life history, of an organism can be understood in terms of [8]

Some organisms that are very r-selected are sparrow, which gives birth to several chicks per year but lives only a few years, as compared to a wandering albatross, which first gives birth at ten years old and breeds every other year during its 40 year lifespan.[10]

r-selected organisms usually:

  • mature rapidly and have an early age of first reproduction
  • have a relatively short lifespan
  • have a large number of offspring at a time, and few reproductive events, or are semelparous
  • have a high mortality rate and a low offspring survival rate
  • have minimal parental care/investment

K-selected organisms usually:

  • mature more slowly and have a later age of first reproduction
  • have a longer lifespan
  • have few offspring at a time and more reproductive events spread out over a longer span of time
  • have a low mortality rate and a high offspring survival rate
  • have high parental investment

Determinants of life history

Many factors can determine the evolution of an organism's life history, especially the unpredictability of the environment. A very unpredictable environment—one in which resources, hazards, and competitors may fluctuate rapidly—selects for organisms that produce more offspring earlier in their lives, because it is never certain whether they will survive to reproduce again. Mortality rate may be the best indicator of a species' life history: organisms with high mortality rates—the usual result of an unpredictable environment—typically mature earlier than those species with low mortality rates, and give birth to more offspring at a time.[11] A highly unpredictable environment can also lead to plasticity, in which individual organisms can shift along the spectrum of r-selected vs. K-selected life histories to suit the environment.[12]


Life history theory has provided new perspectives in understanding many aspects of human reproductive behavior, such as the relationship between poverty and fertility.[13] A number of statistical predictions have been confirmed by social data and there is a large body of scientific literature from studies in experimental animal models, and naturalistic studies among many organisms.

See also


  1. ^ Gustafsson, L., Qvarnström, A., and Sheldon, B.C. 1995. Trade-offs between life-history traits and a secondary sexual character in male collared flycatchers. Nature 375, 311 - 313
  2. ^ Mueller, L.D., Guo, P., and Ayala, F.J. 1991. Density dependent natural selection and trade-offs in life history traits. Science, 253: 433-435.
  3. ^ Rose, M. and Charlesworth, B. A Test of Evolutionary Theories of Senescence. 1980. Nature 287, 141-142
  4. ^ Keen, E. C. (2014). "Tradeoffs in bacteriophage life histories". Bacteriophage 4 (1): e28365.  
  5. ^ Fisher, R. A. 1930. The genetical theory of natural selection. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. ^ J. Curtis Creighton, Nicholas D. Heflin, and Mark C. Belk. 2009. Cost of Reproduction, Resource Quality, and Terminal Investment in a Burying Beetle. The American Naturalist, 174:673–684.
  7. ^ J. Curtis Creighton, Nicholas D. Heflin, and Mark C. Belk. 2009. Cost of Reproduction, Resource Quality, and Terminal Investment in a Burying Beetle. The American Naturalist, 174:673–684.
  8. ^ Stearns, S.C. 1977. The Evolution of Life History Traits: A Critique of the Theory and a Review of the Data. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 8: 145-171
  9. ^ Young, Truman P. 1984. The Comparative Demography of Semelparous Lobelia Telekii and Iteroparous Lobelia Keniensis on Mount Kenya. Journal of Ecology, 72: 637-650
  10. ^ Ricklefs, Robert E. 1977. On the Evolution of Reproductive Strategies in Birds: Reproductive Effort. The American Naturalist, 111: 453-478.
  11. ^ Promislow, D.E.L. and P.H. Harvey. 1990. Living fast and dying young: A comparative analysis of life-history variation among mammals. Journal of Zoology, 220:417-437.
  12. ^ Baird, D. G., L. R. Linton and Ronald W. Davies. 1986. Life-History Evolution and Post-Reproductive Mortality Risk. Journal of Animal Ecology 55: 295-302.
  13. ^ Sinding, Steven. "Population, Poverty, and Economic Development". Philosophical Transactions of Biological Sciences. Royal Society for Biological Sciences. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  • Charnov, E. L. (1993). Life history invariants. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Kozlowski, J and Wiegert, RG 1986. Optimal allocation to growth and reproduction. Theoretical Population Biology 29: 16-37.
  • Roff, D. (1992). The evolution of life histories: Theory and analysis. New York:Chapman & Hall.
  • Stearns, S. (1992). The evolution of life histories. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Further reading

  • Fabian, D. & Flatt, T. (2012) Life History Evolution. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):24
  • (peer-reviewed) Nature Education Knowledge entry on Semelparity
  • Ellis, B.J. (2004). Timing of pubertal maturation in girls: an integrated life history approach. Psychological Bulletin. 130:920-58.
  • Kaplan, H., K. Hill, J. Lancaster, and A.M. Hurtado. (2000). The Evolution of intelligence and the Human life history. Evolutionary Anthropology, 9(4): 156-184..
  • Quinlan, R.J. (2007). Human parental effort and environmental risk. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274(1606):121-125.
  • Vigil, J. M., Geary, D. C., & Byrd-Craven, J. (2005). A life history assessment of early childhood sexual abuse in women. Developmental Psychology, 41, 553-561.
  • Walker, R., Gurven, M., Hill, K., Migliano, A., Chagnon, N., Djurovic, G., Hames, R., Hurtado, AM, Kaplan, H., Oliver, W., de Souza, R., Valeggia, C., Yamauchi, T. (2006). Growth rates, developmental markers and life histories in 21 small-scale societies. American Journal of Human Biology 18:295-311.
  • Derek A. Roff (2007). Contributions of genomics to life-history theory. Nature Reviews Genetics 8, 116-125.
  • Freeman, Scott and Herron, Jon C. 2007. Evolutionary Analysis 4th Ed: Aging and Other Life History Characteristics. 485-86, 514, 516.
  • Kaplan, H.S., and AJ Robson, 2002. The emergence of humans: The coevolution of intelligence and longevity with intergenerational transfers. PNAS 99: 10221-10226.
  • Kaplan, H.S., Lancaster, J.B., & Robson, 2003. Embodied Capital and the Evolutionary Economics Of the Human Lifespan. In: Lifespan: Evolutionary, Ecology and Demographic Perspectives, J.R. Carey & S. Tuljapakur (eds.) Population and Development Review 29, Supplement 2003, Pp. 152–182.
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