Why do larger mothers produce larger offspring? A test of classic theory

Authors: Hayley Cameron, Keyne Monro, Martino Malerba, Stephan Munch and Dustin Marshall

Published in: Ecology, volume 97, issue 12 (December 2016)


Across a wide range of taxa, larger mothers produce larger offspring.

Theory assumes that larger, more fecund mothers create higher local densities of siblings, and so larger mothers produce larger offspring to offset sibling competition. This assumption has been debated for over 30 years, but direct empirical tests are surprisingly rare.

Here, we test two key assumptions of classic theories that predict sibling competition drives maternal-size–offspring-size (MSOS) correlations:

  1. independent effects of offspring size and sibling density on offspring performance or
  2. as a product of an interaction between these two factors.

To simultaneously test these alternative assumptions, we manipulate offspring size and sibling density in the marine invertebrate, Bugula neritina, and monitor offspring performance in the field.

We found that, depending on the fitness metric being considered, offspring size and sibling density can either independently or interactively affect offspring performance. Yet sibling density did not affect offspring performance in the ways that classic theories assume.

Given our results, it is unlikely that sibling competition drives the positive MSOS correlation observed in this species. Empirical support for these classic theories remains lacking, suggesting alternative explanations are necessary.


Cameron H, Monro K, Malerba M, Munch S, Marshall DJ (2016) Why do larger mothers produce larger offspring? A test of classic theory. Ecology, 97: 3452–3459. PDF 415 KB doi:10.1002/ecy.1590

Does genetic diversity reduce sibling competition?

Authors: J. David Aguirre and Dustin J. Marshall

Published in: Evolution, volume 6, issue 1, doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01413.x


An enduring hypothesis for the proximal benefits of sex is that recombination increases the genetic variation among offspring and that this genetic variation increases offspring performance. A corollary of this hypothesis is that mothers that mate multiply increase genetic variation within a clutch and gain benefits due to genetic diversity alone.

Many studies have demonstrated that multiple mating can increase offspring performance, but most attribute this increase to sexual selection and the role of genetic diversity has received less attention. Here, we used a breeding design to generate populations of full-siblings, half-siblings, and unrelated individuals of the solitary ascidian Ciona intestinalis. Importantly, we preclude the potentially confounding influences of maternal effects and sexual selection.

We found that individuals in populations with greater genetic diversity had greater performance (metamorphic success, postmetamorphic survival, and postmetamorphic size) than individuals in populations with lower genetic diversity. Furthermore, we show that by mating with multiple males and thereby increasing genetic variation within a single clutch of offspring, females gain indirect fitness benefits in the absence of mate-choice.

Our results show that when siblings are likely to interact, genetic variation among individuals can decrease competition for resources and generate substantial fitness benefits within a single generation.

Full paper

Aguirre JD, Marshall DJ (2012) Does genetic diversity reduce sibling competition? Evolution, 66-1: 94–102 PDFPDF 688 KB doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01413.x