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Open Access Research article

Can number and size of offspring increase simultaneously? - a central life-history trade-off reconsidered

Eero Schroderus1*, Minna Koivula2, Esa Koskela3, Tapio Mappes1, Tuula A Oksanen1 and Tanja Poikonen1

Author affiliations

1 Centre of Excellence in Evolutionary Research, Department of Biological and Environmental Science, University of Jyväskylä, P.O. Box 35, FI-40014 Jyväskylä, Finland

2 MTT, Biotechnology and Food Research, Biometrical Genetics, FI-31600 Jokioinen, Finland

3 Department of Biological and Environmental Science, University of Jyväskylä, P.O. Box 35, FI-40014 Jyväskylä, Finland

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:44  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-44

Published: 31 March 2012



To maximize their fitness, parents are assumed to allocate their resources optimally between number and size of offspring. Although this fundamental life-history trade-off has been subject to long standing interest, its genetic basis, especially in wild mammals, still remains unresolved. One important reason for this problem is that a large multigenerational pedigree is required to conduct a reliable analysis of this trade-off.


We used the REML-animal model to estimate genetic parameters for litter size and individual birth size for a common Palearctic small mammal, the bank vole (Myodes glareolus). Even though a phenotypic trade-off between offspring number and size was evident, it was not explained by a genetic trade-off, but rather by negative correlations in permanent and temporary environmental effects. In fact, even positive genetic correlations were estimated between direct genetic effects for offspring number and size indicating that genetic variation in these two traits is not necessarily antagonistic in mammals.


Our results have notable implications for the study of the life-history trade-off between offspring number and size in mammals. The estimated genetic correlations suggest that evolution of offspring number and size in polytocous mammals is not constrained by the trade-off caused by antagonistic selection responses per se, but rather by the opposing correlative selection responses in direct and maternal genetic effects for birth size.

Myodes glareolus; Litter size; Birth size; Genetic correlation; Heritability