Effect of Population Density and Female Body Size on Number and Size of Offspring in a Species with Size-Dependent Contests over Resources


Claudia M. Rauter, Department of Biology, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 6001 Dodge Street, Omaha, NE 68182, USA.
E-mail: crauter@unomaha.edu


When size-dependent contests over resources influence reproductive success, the trade-off between number and size of offspring depends on the frequency of contests. Under these circumstances, clutch size should decrease and offspring size should increase as contests become more frequent. We tested these predictions with the burying beetle Nicrophorus pustulatus through manipulation of rearing densities. Burying beetles reproduce on small vertebrate carcasses, a rare but high quality food source for the larvae. Large beetles are more likely to win contests over carcasses and gain exclusive access to a carcass. The winner of a contest kills eggs and larvae already present on a carcass. As a result of the rarity of carcasses, burying beetles are unlikely to breed more than once. As predicted, brood size of N. pustulatus decreased with increasing rearing density. Despite a negative correlation between brood size and larval mass, larval mass did not increase with increasing rearing density. This may be due to the special biology of N. pustulatus which can use snake eggs for reproduction. Potentially larger supply of resources and generally small population densities of N. pustulatus may weaken selection on body size and thus the correlation between brood size and larval mass. As size-dependent constraints can limit reproductive phenotypes, we examined whether female size influenced reproductive phenotype. Small females produced larger broods with smaller, but more variable, offspring than large females. Mechanical constraints of egg size seem an unlikely explanation for the differences because burying beetles can compensate for small egg size through parental care. Energetic constraints may impact small females because body mass and brood size of small females decreased with increasing density. Yet, at all density levels small females produced larger, not smaller, broods than large females. The larger and more variable broods of small females seem to be in agreement with a bet-hedging strategy.