Reproductive performance in grey seals: age-related improvement and senescence in a capital breeder



  • 1Three hypotheses have been advanced to account for age-related improvement in performance: the selection hypothesis predicts improved due to the loss of lower quality phenotypes, the constraint hypothesis predicts individuals improve function, and the restraint hypothesis predicts younger individuals forego or reduce effort because of mortality risks. A decline in age-related performance (i.e. senescence) is predicted by mutation accumulation, antagonistic pleiotropy and disposable soma (wear and tear) hypotheses.
  • 2Using five measures of performance − birth rate, maternal and pup birth mass, pup weaning mass, weaning success and lactation length − we tested these hypotheses concerning age-related change in reproduction in 279 female grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), ages 4–42 years, over a 23-year period between 1983 and 2005 on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. These females produced 2071 pups.
  • 3Although body mass of primiparous females increased with age (4–7 years) birth mass of their pups did not, but pup weaning mass did. Second- and third-parity females of the same age as primiparous females gave birth to and weaned heavier pups. However, parity and age were dropped from models when maternal body mass was included.
  • 4The proportion of females giving birth varied significantly with maternal age, increasing in young females and then declining late in life. Weaning success rate also increased rapidly to about 8 years and subsequently declined in females > 32 years.
  • 5Generalized additive models indicated nonlinear changes in 3 day body mass (i.e. ∼ birth mass) and weaning mass of pups as a function of maternal age, after accounting statistically for the effects of maternal body mass. Mixed-effects, repeated-measures models fitted to longitudinal data further supported the conclusion that pup birth mass and weaning mass vary nonlinearly with maternal age and indicated nonlinear changes in lactation duration.
  • 6We found some support for the constraint hypothesis, but our findings were not consistent with the selection hypothesis or the restraint hypothesis as the basis for improvement in reproductive performance.
  • 7Senescence was evident in multiple female and offspring traits, indicating the degeneration in function of several physiological systems as predicted by the disposable soma hypothesis.