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Not putting all their eggs in one basket: bet-hedging despite extraordinary annual reproductive output of desert tortoises

April 2, 2015

Bet-hedging theory makes the counter-intuitive prediction that, if juvenile survival is low and unpredictable, organisms should consistently reduce short-term reproductive output to minimize the risk of reproductive failure in the long-term. We investigated the long-term reproductive output of an Agassiz's desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) population and conformance to a bet-hedging strategy of reproduction in an unpredictable but comparatively productive environment. Most females reproduced every year, even during periods of low precipitation and poor germination of food plants, and the mean percentage of reproducing females did not differ significantly on an annual basis. Although mean annual egg production (clutch size × clutch frequency) differed significantly among years, mean clutch size and mean clutch frequency remained relatively constant. During an El Niño year, mean annual egg production and mean annual clutch frequency were the highest ever reported for this species. Annual egg production was positively influenced by maternal body size but clutch size and clutch frequency were not. Our long-term results confirm earlier conclusions based on short-term research that desert tortoises have a bet-hedging strategy of producing small clutches almost every year. The risk of long-term reproductive failure is minimized in unpredictable environments, both through time by annually producing multiple small clutches over a long reproductive lifespan, even in years of low resource availability, and through space by depositing multiple annual clutches in different locations. The extraordinary annual reproductive output of this population appears to be the result of a typically high but unpredictable biomass of annual food plants at the site relative to tortoise habitat in dryer regions. Under the comparatively productive but unpredictable conditions, tortoises conform to predictions of a bet-hedging strategy of reproduction with relatively small but consistent clutch sizes.

Publication Year 2015
Title Not putting all their eggs in one basket: bet-hedging despite extraordinary annual reproductive output of desert tortoises
DOI 10.1111/bij.12505
Authors Jeffrey E. Lovich, Joshua R. Ennen, Charles B. Yackulic, Kathie Meyer-Wilkins, Mickey Agha, Caleb L. Loughran, Curtis Bjurlin, Meaghan Austin, Sheila V. Madrak
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Biological Journal of the Linnean Society
Index ID 70144936
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center