1. Life-history theory predicts that those vital rates that make larger contributions to population growth rate ought to be more strongly buffered against environmental variability than are those that are less important. Despite the importance of the theory for predicting demographic responses to changes in the environment, it is not yet known how pervasive demographic buffering is in animal populations because the validity of most existing studies has been called into question because of methodological deficiencies.
2. We tested for demographic buffering in the southern-most breeding mammal population in the world using data collected from 5558 known-age female Weddell seals over 30 years. We first estimated all vital rates simultaneously with mark–recapture analysis and then estimated process variance and covariance in those rates using a hierarchical Bayesian approach. We next calculated the population growth rate’s sensitivity to changes in each of the vital rates and tested for evidence of demographic buffering by comparing properly scaled values of sensitivity and process variance in vital rates.
3. We found evidence of positive process covariance between vital rates, which indicates that all vital rates are affected in the same direction by changes in annual environment. Despite the positive correlations, we found strong evidence that demographic buffering occurred through reductions in variation in the vital rates to which population growth rate was most sensitive. Process variation in vital rates was inversely related to sensitivity measures such that variation was greatest in breeding probabilities, intermediate for survival rates of young animals and lowest for survival rates of older animals.
4. Our work contributes to a small but growing set of studies that have used rigorous methods on long-term, detailed data to investigate demographic responses to environmental variation. The information from these studies improves our understanding of life-history evolution in stochastic environments and provides useful information for predicting population responses to future environmental change. Our results for an Antarctic apex predator also provide useful baselines from a marine ecosystem when its top- and middle-trophic levels were not substantially impacted by human activity.