Ecology of ageing in albatrosses
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Age-related variation in demographic rates has significant consequences for population and evolutionary dynamics, and understanding the processes driving such variation is therefore an important aspect of evolutionary ecology. Reproductive performance may vary over the lifetime of an individual, and this may be the result of both variations in reproductive effort and changes in individual competency. For example, increasing experience is likely to have beneficial effects on reproduction during early life, and senescence, or declines in physiological function, may have negative impacts on the performance of older individuals. The rate at which these changes occur can vary dramatically between species, and even between individuals of the same species. However, understanding the causes and consequences of this variation in the rate of ageing is not always straightforward. As well as the individual-level processes described, the phenotypic composition of successive age classes will contribute to age-related variation observed at the population level. Abrupt changes in performance, such as the poor performance of first time breeders, may be obscured if individuals vary in their age at first reproduction. Population-level patterns may also be influenced by selection; for example, the selective disappearance of low quality individuals from older age classes may mask senescent declines in the performance of longer-lived individuals. Moreover, the physiological mechanisms that underpin within-individual changes in performance are not well understood. Unravelling the drivers of such age-related variation requires longitudinal data, following individuals throughout their lives, which presents challenges for the study of natural populations. Albatrosses are among the longest lived vertebrates. In this thesis, I use data from three species of albatross breeding at Bird Island, South Georgia (54°00’S, 38°03’W) to explore age-related variation. Focusing primarily on the wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans, I characterise the relationship between age and various reproductive traits, and decompose the population-level patterns to reveal effects of experience, senescence and terminal effects across the reproductive lifespan of individuals. I then consider foraging behaviour as a proximate driver of changes in reproductive performance in this species. Using tracking data collected over a 20 year period, I find limited evidence for age-related variation in foraging trips taken throughout the breeding cycle. Going one step further, I explore telomere dynamics in the wandering albatross, examining the potential for telomere length to act as a physiological marker of individual state. Finally, I move on to a species comparison, incorporating data from the black-browed (Thalassarche melanophris) and grey-headed albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma). I compare the population- and individual-level ageing patterns of these three closely related species, and consider these in light of their differing life history strategies.