Avian egg size: variation within species and inflexibility within individuals


*Address for correspondence: Julian K. Christians, Institute of Cell, Animal and Population Biology, University of Edinburgh, Ashworth Laboratories, King's Buildings, West Mains Road, Edinburgh, EH9 3JT, UK. Tel.:+ 44 (0) 131 650 7334; fax: +44 (0)131 650 6564; e-mail: julian.christians@ed.ac.uk


Egg size is a widely-studied trait and yet the causes and consequences of variation in this trait remain poorly understood. Egg size varies greatly within many avian species, with the largest egg in a population generally being at least 50% bigger, and sometimes twice as large, as the smallest. Generally, approximately 70% of the variation in egg mass is due to variation between rather than within clutches, although there are some cases of extreme intra-clutch egg-size variation. Despite the large amount of variation in egg size between females, this trait is highly consistent within individuals between breeding attempts; the repeatability of egg size is generally above 0.6 and tends to be higher than that of clutch size or laying date. Heritability estimates also tend to be much higher for egg size (> 0.5) than for clutch size or laying date (< 0.5). As expected, given the high repeatability and heritability of egg size, supplemental food had no statistically significant effect on this trait in 18 out of 28 (64%) studies. Where dietary supplements do increase egg size, the effect is never more than 13% of the control values and is generally much less. Similarly, ambient temperature during egg formation generally explains less than 15% of the variation in egg size. In short, egg size appears to be a characteristic of individual females, and yet the traits of a female that determine egg size are not clear. Although egg size often increases with female age (17 out of 37 studies), the change in egg size is generally less than 10%. Female mass and size rarely explain more than 20% of the variation in egg size within species. A female's egg size is not consistently related to other aspects of reproductive performance such as clutch size, laying date, or the pair's ability to rear young. Physiological characteristics of the female (e.g. endogenous protein stores, oviduct mass, rate of protein uptake by ovarian follicles) show more promise as potential determinants of egg size. With regards to the consequences of egg-size variation for offspring fitness, egg size is often correlated with offspring mass and size within the first week after hatching, but the evidence for more long-lasting effects on chick growth and survival is equivocal. In other oviparous vertebrates, the magnitude of egg-size variation within populations is often as great or greater than that observed within avian populations. Although there are much fewer estimates of the repeatability of egg size in other taxa, the available evidence suggests that egg size may be more flexible within individuals. Furthermore, in non-avian species (particularly fish and turtles), it is more common for female mass or size to explain a substantial proportion of the variation in egg size. Further research into the physiological basis of egg-size variation is needed to shed light on both the proximate and ultimate causes of intraspecific variation in this trait in birds.