Longevity and lifetime reproductive success of barn swallow offspring are predicted by their hatching date and phenotypic quality


Correspondence author. E-mail: nicola.saino@unimi.it


1. Longevity is a major determinant of individual differences in Darwinian fitness. Several studies have analyzed the stochastic, time-dependent causes of variation in longevity, but little information exists from free-ranging animal populations on the effects that environmental conditions and phenotype early in ontogeny have on duration of life.

2. In this long-term (1993–2011) study of a migratory, colonial, passerine bird, the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), we analyzed longevity and, in a subsample of individuals, lifetime reproductive success (LRS) of the offspring that reached sexual maturity in relation to hatching date, which can affect the rearing environment through a seasonal deterioration in ecological conditions. Moreover, we analyzed the consequences of variation in body size and, for the first time in any species, of a major component of immunity on longevity, both by looking at absolute phenotypic values and at deviations from the brood mean.

3. Accelerated failure time models showed that individuals of both sexes that hatched early in any breeding season enjoyed larger longevity and larger LRS, indicating directional selection for early breeding. Both male and female offspring with large T cell-mediated immune response relative to their siblings and female nestlings that dominated the brood size/age hierarchy had larger longevity than their siblings of inferior phenotypic quality/age. Conversely, absolute phenotypic values did not predict longevity.

4. Frailty modelling disclosed marked spatial heterogeneity in longevity among colonies of origin, again stressing the impact of rearing conditions on longevity.

5. This study therefore reinforces the notion that perinatal environment and maternal decisions over timing and site of breeding, and position in the brood hierarchy can have marked effects on progeny life history that extend well into adulthood. In addition, it provides the first evidence from any bird population in the wild that immune response when nestlings predicts individuals’ longevity after sexual maturation.