Bet-hedging response to environmental variability, an intraspecific comparison
A major challenge in ecology is to understand the impact of increased environmental variability on populations and ecosystems. To maximize their fitness in a variable environment, life history theory states that individuals should favor a bet-hedging strategy, involving a reduction of annual breeding performance and an increase in adult survival so that reproduction can be attempted over more years. As a result, evolution toward longer life span is expected to reduce the deleterious effects of extra variability on population growth, and consequently on the trait contributing the most to it (e. g., adult survival in long-lived species). To investigate this, we compared the life histories of two Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) populations breeding at South Georgia (Atlantic Ocean) and Kerguelen (Indian Ocean), the former in an environment nearly three times more variable climatically (e. g., in sea surface temperature) than the latter. As predicted, individuals from South Georgia (in the more variable environment) showed significantly higher annual adult survival (0.959, SE = 0.003) but lower annual reproductive success (0.285 chick per pair, SE = 0.039) than birds from Kerguelen (survival = 0.925, SE = 0.004; breeding success = 0.694, SE = 0.027). In both populations, climatic conditions affected the breeding success and the survival of inexperienced breeders, whereas the survival of experienced breeders was unaffected. The strength of the climatic impact on survival of inexperienced breeders was very similar between the two populations, but the effect on breeding success was positively related to environmental variability. These results provide rare and compelling evidence to support bet-hedging underlying changes in life history traits as an adaptive response to environmental variability.