• elevation gradient;
  • altitude;
  • life-history variation;
  • reproduction;
  • trade-off


  • 1
    Elevational gradients create environmental variation that is hypothesized to promote variation in life-history strategies. We tested whether differences in life-history strategies were associated with elevation in a songbird, the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis; Aves; A.O.U. 1998).
  • 2
    We monitored birds in four replicated sites per elevation, at 2000 m a.s.l. (high elevation) and 1000 m a.s.l. (low elevation), in the Rocky Mountains of Canada.
  • 3
    Over 5 years, we measured the following traits and vital rates: egg-laying schedules, morphological indicators of reproductive stage, seasonal reproductive success, indicators of competitive class (age, size, arrival time), and survival rates.
  • 4
    We found two main patterns: with an increase in breeding elevation, dark-eyed juncos delayed the development of structures necessary for reproduction (e.g. cloacal protuberance in males) and reduced the duration of their reproductive period to less than half of the time used by low-elevation birds; and
  • 5
    Juncos at high-elevation sites had 55–61% lower annual reproductive success and 15 to 20% higher survival rates. While adult juncos at high elevations produced fewer offspring, those offspring were in better condition. Proportions of age and size classes in high- compared to low-elevation populations were similar, suggesting that a life-history trade-off is present, rather than competition forcing inferior competitors to breed in a peripheral habitat. The apparent trade-off between reproduction and survival corresponded to a shorter period of favourable weather and available food in high- compared to low-elevation habitats.
  • 6
    Thus, elevation had a strong influence on life-history characteristics of a single species over a short spatial distance, suggesting a shift in life history from a high reproductive strategy at lower elevations to a high survivor strategy at high elevations.
  • 7
    This is the first paper to show a shift in avian life-history strategies along an elevational gradient (in both genders, of multiple age classes) when region (latitude) and phylogenetic histories are controlled for.