Extrinsic mortality and senescence: a guide for the perplexed

Read the full article See related articles

Listed in

Log in to save this article


Do environments or species traits that lower the mortality of individuals create selection for delaying senescence? Reading the literature creates an impression that mathematically oriented biologists cannot agree on the validity of George Williams’ prediction (who claimed ‘yes’). The abundance of models and opinions may bewilder those that are new to the field. Here we provide heuristics as well as simple models that outline when the Williams prediction holds, why there is a ‘null model’ where extrinsic mortality does not change the evolution of senescence at all, and why it is also possible to expect the opposite of William’s prediction, where increased extrinsic mortality favours slower senescence. We hope to offer intuition by quantifying how much delaying the ‘placement’ of an offspring into the population reduces its expected contribution to the gene pool of the future. Our first example shows why sometimes increased extrinsic mortality has no effect (the null result), and why density dependence can change that. Thereafter, a model with ten different choices for population regulation shows that high extrinsic mortality favours fast life histories (Williams) if increasing density harms the production of juveniles or their chances to recruit into the population. If instead increasing density harms the survival of older individuals in a population, then high extrinsic mortality favours slow life histories (anti-Williams). We discuss the possibility that empirically found Williams-like patterns provide indirect evidence for population regulation operating via harming the production or fitness prospects of juveniles, as opposed to the survival of established breeders.

Article activity feed