1. How much should an individual invest in reproduction as it grows older? Answering this question involves determining whether individuals measure their age as the time left for future reproduction or as the rate of deterioration in their state. Theory suggests that in the former case individuals should increase their allocation of resources to reproduction as opportunities for future breeding dwindle, and terminally invest when they breed for the last time. In the latter case they should reduce their investment in reproduction with age, either through adaptive reproductive restraint or as a passive by-product of senescence.
2. Here we present the results of experiments on female burying beetles, Nicrophorus vespilloides, in which we independently manipulated the perceived risk of death (by activating the immune system) and the extent of deterioration in state (by changing age of first reproduction and/or prior investment in reproduction).
3. We found that the risk of death and state each independently influenced the extent of reproductive investment. Specifically, we found a state-dependent decline in reproductive investment as females grew older that could be attributed to both adaptive reproductive restraint and senescence. A perceived increase in the risk of death, induced by activation of the immune system, caused females to switch from a strategy of reproductive restraint to terminal investment. Nevertheless, absolute reproductive investment was lower in older females, indicating constraints of senescence.
4. Our results show that a decline in reproductive investment with age does not necessarily constitute evidence of reproductive senescence but can also result from adaptive reproductive restraint.
5. Our results further suggest that the extent of reproductive investment is dependent on several different intrinsic cues and that the particular blend of cues available at any given age can yield very different patterns of investment. Perhaps this explains why age-related reproductive investment patterns seen in nature are so diverse.