Getting an evolutionary handle on life after reproduction

December 26, 2005

Since many animals live beyond their fertile years, biologists have searched for evolutionary clues to this extended lifespan. What role, if any, does natural selection play in the evolution of the postreproductive lifespan? For natural selection to shape the twilight years, postreproductive females should contribute to the fitness of their offspring or relatives, a hypothesis called the "grandmother effect." Though many mammals, including lions and baboons, rear dependent young and operate within complex social groups, studies have found no evidence of a granny effect, and females mostly live just long enough to care for their last born. For nonsocial animals that spawn independent young, extended lifespan is associated with good nutrition and the absence of disease and predators.

In a new study, David Reznick, Michael Bryant, and Donna Holmes provide the first experimental confirmation that evolution works selectively on those aspects of life history that directly affect fitness. They expand on their ongoing investigations of the life history of guppies confronting different predatory threats in Trinidad. Individuals facing different mortality threats should evolve different adaptations in their life histories, such as age at first reproduction, investment in reproduction, and patterns of senescence, including declines in reproduction. Since guppies are livebearers that provide no postnatal maternal care, Reznick et al. predicted the populations would show no differences in postreproductive lifespan--which is what they found.

Though overall lifespan varied among the populations, these variations stemmed from differences in time allotted only to reproduction. Postreproductive lifespan, in contrast, showed no signs of being under selection, and appeared to be what the authors called a "random add-on at the end of the life history." Random or not, this is the first demonstration of a postreproductive lifespan in fish.

These findings also refute the suggestion that fish may experience little or no reproductive senescence based on evidence that they continue to produce eggs as adults. It's an open question whether postreproductive lifespan can influence fitness enough to be under selection. But in a field dominated by investigations into the origins of human menopause and extended lifespan, the authors make a strong case for using experimental comparative analyses of other species to gain an evolutionary perspective on the human condition.
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Citation: Reznick D, Bryant M, Holmes D (2006) The evolution of senescence and post-reproductive lifespan in guppies (Poecilia reticulata). PLoS Biol 4(1): e7.

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