1. Under the hypothesis of environmental buffering, populations are expected to minimize the variance of the most influential vital rates; however, this may not be a universal principle. Species with a life span <1 year may be less likely to exhibit buffering because of temporal or seasonal variability in vital rate sensitivities. Further, plasticity in vital rates may be adaptive for species in a variable environment with reliable cues.
2. We tested for environmental buffering and plasticity in vital rates using stage-structured matrix models from long-term data sets in four species of grassland rodents. We used periodic matrices to estimate stochastic elasticity for each vital rate and then tested for correlations with a standardized coefficient of variation for each rate.
3. We calculated stochastic elasticities for individual months to test for an association between increased reproduction and the influence of reproduction, relative to survival, on the population growth rate.
4. All species showed some evidence of buffering. The elasticity of vital rates of Peromyscus leucopus (Rafinesque, 1818), Sigmodon hispidus Say & Ord, 1825 and Microtus ochrogaster (Wagner, 1842) was negatively related to vital rate CV. Elasticity and vital rate CV were negatively related in Peromyscus maniculatus (Wagner, 1845), but the relationship was not statistically significant. Peromyscus leucopus and M. ochrogaster showed plasticity in vital rates; reproduction was higher following months where elasticity for reproduction exceeded that of survival.
5. Our results suggest that buffering is common in species with fast life histories; however, some populations that exhibit buffering are capable of responding to short-term variability in environmental conditions through reproductive plasticity.