Mapping the vast diversity of animal life histories

Live fast and die young, or play the long game? Scientists map huge variety of animal life cycles

Scientists have pinpointed the “pace” and “shape” of life as the two key elements in animal life cycles that affect how different species get by in the world. Their findings, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, come from a detailed assessment of 121 species ranging from humans to sponges, may have important implications for conservation strategies and for predicting which species will be the winners and losers from the global environment crisis. 

“Pace of life” relates to how fast animals reach maturity, how long they can expect to live, and the rate at which they can replenish a population with offspring. “Shape of life”, meanwhile, relates to how an animal’s chance of breeding or dying is spread out across its lifespan.

The research is the result of a collaboration between scientists from Oxford University, the National University of Ireland Galway, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Southampton, and the University of Southern Denmark.


The wide range of animal life cycles

Animal life cycles vary to a staggering degree. Some animals, such as  the turquoise killifish (a small fish that can complete its life cycle in 14 days) grow fast and die young, while others, like the Greenland shark, (a fish that glides around for up to 500 years), grow slowly and have extraordinarily long lifespans. 

Similarly, the spread of death and reproduction across animal life cycles also varies greatly. Salmon, for example, spawn over a short period of time with the probability of dying being particularly high both at the start of their life cycle and when they reproduce. Fulmars and some other sea birds, on the other hand, have wider time periods of reproduction and face relatively similar chances of dying throughout their lives. 

Humans and Asian elephants have long lifespans and face a relatively low risk of mortality until later ages, but have a fairly narrow age range for reproduction due to having both long juvenile periods and as they can live after the reproductive part of their life-cycles. Both species share a similar lifespan with the Australian freshwater crocodile, but the crocodile has a completely different reproductive strategy – its reproduction is spread relatively evenly throughout its lifespan but its young have a low chance of reaching adulthood and reproducing.

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The puzzle of different life cycles

Why animal life cycles vary so much has long been an important puzzle that scientists have sought to solve. Among the reasons are that understanding why animals age, reproduce and grow at different rates may:

  1. help shed light on the evolution of aging itself
  2. help identify how species will respond to global environmental change

In their study, the scientists used population data to compare detailed life cycles for species ranging from sponges to corals, salmon to turtles, and vultures to humans. By mapping 121 life cycles, the scientists noticed that certain animal ecologies and physiologies were associated with certain life cycles.

Associate Professor in Ecology, Dr Rob Salguero-Gómez, co-senior author, said: 

Since the times of Aristotle, and much later also recapitulated by Darwin and many more to follow, biologists have been amazed by the amount of variation in strategies that organisms develop to live in different environments. How fast to grow (or not), how long to live (or not), and when/how much to reproduce (or not) are the building blocks that allow for different species to persist in their climates, past, current, and – importantly due to climate change – future. This work provides a comparative glance at the variation in life history strategies among animals, and it remarkably highlights important commonalities in the ways that both animals and plants go about making a living and adapting to different environments. Classical works in life history theory predicted a single way to structure life strategies. Recent work that we have done in my group, the SalGo Team, with plants and now here with animals shows the range of possibilities is much wider than previously suspected.

“The unparalleled wealth of animal demographic schedules used in this research opens up new exciting ways to explore what are the most common strategies used by different species to thrive in their environments, but also to use demographic models to make predictions about what species will be the winners and losers of climate change.

Lead author, Dr Kevin Healy, who conducted the research at Trinity; now Lecturer of Zoology at the National University of Ireland Galway, said: 

“When we mapped out the range of life cycles in the animal kingdom we saw that they follow general patterns. Whether you are a sponge, a fish or a human, your life cycle can, in general, be described by two things – how fast you live and how your reproduction and chance of dying is spread out across your lifespan.

“As we expected, species with low metabolic rates and slow modes-of-life were associated with slower life cycles. This makes sense; if you don’t burn much energy per second, you are restricted in how fast you can grow. Similarly, if you are an animal that doesn’t move around a lot, such as a sponge or a fish that lives on the sea bed, playing a longer game in terms of your pace of life makes sense as you may need to wait for food to come to you.”


Conservation implications

The scientists also investigated whether certain life cycles made animals more susceptible to ecological threats, by looking for associations between an animal’s life cycle and its position on the IUCN red list of endangered species.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (UK), Australian Research Council, Science Foundation Ireland, Danish Council for Independent Research, and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany).