Ecology Letters (2009) 12: 1379–1384
Growth rates play a fundamental role in many areas of biology (Q. Rev. Biol., 67, 1992, 283; Life History Invariants. Some Explorations of Symmetry in Evolutionary Biology, 1993; Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci., 351, 1996, 1341; Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes, and Ecosystem Properties, 2002; Trends Ecol. Evol., 18, 2003, 471; Q. Rev. Biol., 78, 2003, 23; J. Ecol., 95, 2007, 926.) but the cost and benefits of different growth rates are notoriously difficult to quantify (Q. Rev. Biol., 72, 1997, 149; Funct. Ecol., 17, 2003, 328). This is because (1) growth rate typically declines with size and yet the most widely used growth measure – relative growth rate or RGR (conventionally measured as the log of the ratio of successive sizes divided by the time interval) – is not size-corrected and so confounds growth and size, (2) organisms have access to different amounts of resource and (3) it is essential to allow for the long-term benefits of larger size. Here we experimentally demonstrate delayed costs and benefits of rapid growth in seven plant species using a novel method to calculate size-corrected RGR. In control treatments, fast-growing plants benefited from increased reproduction the following year; however, fast-growing plants subjected to an experimental stress treatment (defoliation) showed strongly reduced survival and reproduction the following year. Importantly, when growth was estimated using the classical RGR measure, no costs or benefits were found. These results support the idea that life-history trade-offs have a dominant role in life-history and ecological theory and that the widespread failure to detect them is partly due to methodological shortcomings.