Causes and consequences of variation in age at first reproduction in barnacle geese

My main data source will be mark-recapture data from the Ny-Ålesund barnacle geese population, providing individual-based information on annual reproduction (nesting information, number of eggs laid, chick survival, chick recruitment) and survival. The data are collected on the islands in Kongsfjorden and in Ny-Ålesund.

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  • field work
  • arctic field grant (afg)


  • terrestrial biology

Project Keywords

  • biosphere / ecological dynamics / species/population interactions

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Life history theory predicts that iteroparous species should allocate resources to maximize individual fitness, resulting in trade-offs between fitness-related traits (Stearns 1992). Trade-offs in life history evolution are often based on the principle of resource allocation, where the energy allocated to one fitness component will lead to a decrease in resources allocated to another component. One example is the cost of reproduction (Bell 1980), in which increased fecundity or parental investment causes reduced longevity of the parent or a reduced capacity for future reproduction. However, the amount of resources available and the acquisition and handling abilities of individuals are rarely constant. Accordingly, fitness-related traits can also positively co-vary because of individual heterogeneity, which can originate from maternal effects or early-life conditions related to e.g. climate or population density. These sources of variation should always be taken into account when investigating the causes and consequences of different life history strategies. Within species, early-maturing individuals can have higher lifetime reproductive success than late-maturing individuals as they may obtain a higher number of reproductive events (Stearns 1992). However, early start of reproduction can also lead to reductions in growth, survival and future reproduction if the costs of reproduction are high. Like longevity, the age at first reproduction (hereafter age at maturity) is therefore a key life-history trait with substantial potential for influencing lifetime reproductive success (Bell 1980) and, thereby, population growth (Reiter and LeBoeuf 1991). Accordingly, in long-lived species with strongly age-specific vital rates, a mechanistic understanding of the causes and consequences of annual and individual variation in age at maturity represents one key to predicting effects of population-dynamical drivers such as climate change. During the last few decades, the Svalbard barnacle goose has been undergoing a strong increase in density, probably as a combined result of conservation measures and climate change (Black 2007). The local Ny-Ålesund population established in the early 1980s and increased to ~900 adults during the late 1990s (Loonen et al. 1998). Mark-recapture data and independent total count data have been collected here since 1990, along with proxies of food resources and abundance of the Arctic fox, the main predator. Although the role of density-dependence and climate effects in shaping vital rates and population dynamics is not much studied, it is clear that fox predation to a large degree drives the annual goose productivity (Loonen et al. 1998). However, there has been an overall declining trend in chick growth, adult body mass and population size since the late 1990s (Loonen unpubl.), possibly indicating effects of density-dependence, climate change, or both. To improve our mechanistic basis for understanding how climate and density-dependence influence barnacle goose population dynamics, I aim to disentangle the causes and individual-level consequences of age at maturity, which varies considerably between individuals, sexes and years (Loonen unpubl.). Thus, my project complies strongly with the terrestrial ecosystem flagship programme for Ny-Ålesund research.

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