The ecological basis of life history variation in marsupials


1Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

2Department of Zoology, University of Aberdeen, Tillydrone Avenue, Aberdeen AB24 2TZ, UK

3Department of Biology, Imperial College at Silwood Park, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7PY, UK

4Department of Zoology and Tropical Ecology and Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia


Our understanding of the diversity of mammalian life histories is based almost exclusively on eutherian mammals, in which the slow-fast continuum persists even after controlling for effects .of body size and phylogeny. In this paper, we use modern comparative methods to test the extent to which this eutherian-based framework can be extrapolated to metatherian mammals. First, we examine the pattern of covariation among life history traits, and second, we test for correlations between variation in life history and variation in six candidate ecological variables: type of diet, extent of intraspecific com petition, risk of juvenile mortality, diurnal pattern of activity, arboreality, and rainfall pattern. Even when controlling for body size and phylogeny, we observe a slow-fast con tinuum in metatherian mammals. Some parameters involved are different from those iden tified by studies of eutherians, but the underlying relationships among longevity, fecundity, and age at maturity persist. We also show that overall variation in a key life history variable, reproductive output (measured by annual reproductive rate and litter size), is significantly related to variation in type of diet, with a foliage-rich diet being associated with low fecundity. This is interesting because, although ecological correlations have been found within some eutherian subgroups, modern comparative approaches have failed to reveal robust ecological correlates of overall life history diversity in eutherians.