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Open Access Open Badges Research article

The continuum between semelparity and iteroparity: plastic expression of parity in response to season length manipulation in Lobelia inflata

P William Hughes* and Andrew M Simons

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa K1S 5B6, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:90  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-90

Published: 26 April 2014



Semelparity and iteroparity are considered to be distinct and alternative life-history strategies, where semelparity is characterized by a single, fatal reproductive episode, and iteroparity by repeated reproduction throughout life. However, semelparous organisms do not reproduce instantaneously; typically reproduction occurs over an extended time period. If variation in reproductive allocation exists within such a prolonged reproductive episode, semelparity may be considered iteroparity over a shorter time scale.

This continuity hypothesis predicts that “semelparous” organisms with relatively low probability of survival after age at first reproduction will exhibit more extreme semelparity than those with high probability of adult survival. This contrasts with the conception of semelparity as a distinct reproductive strategy expressing a discrete, single, bout of reproduction, where reproductive phenotype is expected to be relatively invariant. Here, we manipulate expected season length—and thus expected adult survival—to ask whether Lobelia inflata, a classic “semelparous” plant, exhibits plasticity along a semelparous-iteroparous continuum.


Groups of replicated genotypes were manipulated to initiate reproduction at different points in the growing season in each of three years. In lab and field populations alike, the norm of reaction in parity across a season was as predicted by the continuity hypothesis: as individuals bolted later, they showed shorter time to, and smaller size at first reproduction, and multiplied their reproductive organs through branching, thus producing offspring more simultaneously.


This work demonstrates that reproductive effort occurs along a semelparous-iteroparous continuum within a “semelparous” organism, and that variation in parity occurs within populations as a result of phenotypic plasticity.

Semelparity; Iteroparity; Life-history theory; Reproductive effort; Phenotypic plasticity