Deterioration, death and the evolution of reproductive restraint in late life

John M. McNamara, Alasdair I. Houston, Zoltan Barta, Alexander Scheuerlein, Lutz Fromhage

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

92 Citations (Scopus)


Explaining why organisms schedule reproduction over their lifetimes in the various ways that they do is an enduring challenge in biology. An influential theoretical prediction states that organisms should increasingly invest in reproduction as they approach the end of their life. An apparent mismatch of empirical data with this prediction has been attributed to age-related constraints on the ability to reproduce. Here we present a general framework for the evolution of age-related reproductive trajectories. Instead of characterizing an organism by its age, we characterize it by its physiological condition. We develop a common currency that if maximized at each time guarantees the whole life history is optimal. This currency integrates reproduction, mortality and changes in condition. We predict that under broad conditions it will be optimal for organisms to invest less in reproduction as they age, thus challenging traditional interpretations of age-related traits and renewing debate about the extent to which observed life histories are shaped by constraint versus adaptation. Our analysis gives a striking illustration of the differences between an age-based and a condition-based approach to life-history theory. It also provides a unified account of not only standard life-history models but of related models involving the allocation of limited resources.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4061-4066
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1675
Publication statusPublished - Nov 22 2009


  • Ageing
  • Life history
  • Reproduction
  • Senescence
  • Terminal investment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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