Manipulating developmental stress reveals sex-specific effects of egg size on offspring phenotype

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Journal of Evolutionary Biology





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The general lack of experimental evidence for strong, positive effects of egg size on offspring phenotype has led to suggestions that avian egg size is a neutral trait. To better understand the functional significance of intra-specific variation in egg size as a determinant of offspring fitness within a life-history (sex-specific life-history strategies) and an environmental (poor rearing conditions) context, we experimentally increased developmental stress (via maternal feather-clipping) in the sexually size-dimorphic European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and measured phenotypic traits in offspring across multiple biological scales. As predicted by life-history theory, sons and daughters had different responses when faced with developmental stress and variation in egg size. In response to developmental stress, small egg size in normally faster-growing sons was associated with catch-up growth prior to attaining larger adult size, resulting in a reduction in developmental stability. Daughters apparently avoided this developmental instability by reducing growth rate and eventual adult body mass and size. Interestingly, large egg size provided offspring with greater developmental flexibility under poor growth conditions. Large-egg sons and daughters avoided the reduction in developmental stability, and daughters also showed enhanced escape performance during flight trials. Furthermore, large egg size resulted in elevated immune responses for both sexes under developmental stress. These findings show that there can be significant, but complex, context-specific effects of egg size on offspring phenotype at least up to fledging, but these can only be demonstrated by appreciating variation in the quality of the offspring environment and life histories. Results are therefore consistent with egg size playing a significant role in shaping the phenotypic outcome of offspring in species that show even greater intra-specific variation in egg size than starlings.