The evolution of maternal effect senescence

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Increased maternal age at reproduction is often associated with decreased offspring performance in numerous species of plants and animals (including humans). Current evolutionary theory considers such maternal effect senescence as part of a unified process of reproductive senescence, which is under identical age-specific selective pressures to fertility. We offer a novel theoretical perspective by combining William Hamilton’s evolutionary model for aging with a quantitative genetic model of indirect genetic effects. We demonstrate that fertility and maternal effects senescence are likely to experience different patterns of age-specific selection and thus can evolve to take divergent forms. Applied to neonatal survival, we find that selection for maternal effects is the product of age-specific fertility and Hamilton’s age-specific force of selection for fertility. Population genetic models show that senescence for these maternal effects can evolve in the absence of reproductive or actuarial senescence; this implies that maternal effect aging is a fundamentally distinct demographic manifestation of the evolution of aging. However, brief periods of increasingly beneficial maternal effects can evolve when fertility increases with age faster than cumulative survival declines. This is most likely to occur early in life. Our integration of theory provides a general framework with which to model, measure, and compare the evolutionary determinants of the social manifestations of aging. Extension of our maternal effects model to other ecological and social contexts could provide important insights into the drivers of the astonishing diversity of lifespans and aging patterns observed among species.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)362-367
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
Issue number2
Early online date29 Dec 2015
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2016


  • Aging
  • indirect genetic effects
  • demography
  • selection
  • social


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