• Birth size;
  • density-dependent selection;
  • life-history;
  • litter size;
  • maternal effect;
  • trade-off

Body size at birth has implications for the quality of individuals throughout their life. Although large body size is generally considered an advantage, the relationship between body size at birth and long-term fitness is often complicated. Under spatial or temporal variation in environmental conditions, such as the seasonally changing densities of Fennoscandian vole populations, selection should favor variation in offspring phenotypes, as different qualities may be beneficial in different conditions. We performed an experiment in which a novel hormonal manipulation method was used to increase phenotypic variance in body size at birth in the bank vole (Myodes glareolus). The effects of body size on the future fitness of young males and females were then studied at varying population densities in outdoor enclosures. Our results show that small body size at birth and high breeding density increase the survival costs of reproduction. However, there was no interaction between the effects of body size and density on survival, which suggests that the fitness effects of body size were strong enough to persist under environmental variation. Moreover, litter size and the probability of breeding were more sensitive to variation in breeding density than offspring size. Therefore, it is unlikely that individual fitness could be optimized by adjusting offspring body size to the prevailing population density through adaptive maternal effects. Our results highlight the significance of the costs of reproduction in the evolution of life-history traits, and give strong experimental support for the long-term fitness effects of body size at birth.