Bighorn ewes transfer the costs of reproduction to their lambs

J G A Martin, M Festa-Bianchet

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61 Citations (Scopus)


Several studies of large mammals report no direct reproductive costs for females. Individual heterogeneity may hide fitness costs of reproduction, but mothers could also transfer some costs to their offspring. Using data on 442 lambs weaned by 146 bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) ewes at Ram Mountain, Alberta, we studied how reproductive effort varied with environmental and maternal conditions. During summer, lactating ewes should gain enough mass to survive the winter and to support their next gestation, while nursing their current lamb. We measured reproductive effort as summer mass gain by lambs corrected for maternal mass in June and maternal mass gain during summer. Females lowered their reproductive effort when population density increased and if they had weaned a lamb the previous year. A reduction in reproductive effort led to lower winter survival by lambs. Bighorn ewes have a conservative reproductive tactic and always favor their own body condition over that of their lambs. When resources are limited, ewes appear to transfer reproductive costs to their lambs, as expected from the much greater relative fitness consequences of a reduction in maternal than in offspring survival.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)414-423
Number of pages10
JournalThe American Naturalist
Issue number4
Early online date24 Aug 2010
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2010


  • bighorn sheep ewe
  • heritability
  • reproductive effort
  • life-history traits
  • parent-offspring conflict
  • fitness


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