The natural history of luck: A synthesis study of structured population models

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Christina Maria Hernandez, Stephen P Ellner, Robin E. Snyder, Giles Hooker


Chance pervades life. In turn, life histories are described by probabilities (e.g., survival, breeding) and averages across individuals (e.g., mean growth rate, age at maturity). In this study, we explored patterns of luck in lifetime outcomes by analyzing structured population models for a wide array of plant and animal species. We calculated four response variables: variance and skewness in both lifespan and lifetime reproductive output (LRO), and partitioned them into contributions from different forms of luck. We examined relationships among response variables and a variety of life history traits. We found that variance in lifespan and variance in LRO were positively correlated across taxa, but that variance and skewness were negatively correlated for both lifespan and LRO. The most important life history trait was longevity, which shaped variance and skew in LRO through its effects on variance in lifespan. We found that luck in survival, growth, and fecundity all contributed to variance in LRO, but skew in LRO was overwhelmingly due to survival luck. Rapidly growing populations have larger variances in LRO and lifespan than shrinking populations. Our results indicate that luck-induced genetic drift may be most severe in recovering populations of species with long mature lifespan and high iteroparity.



Life Sciences, Population Biology


life history, luck, individual stochasticity, pace of life, reproductive skew, lifetime reproductive output, Longevity, matrix population model, integral projection model, traits


Published: 2024-04-13 00:42


CC-BY Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International

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Conflict of interest statement:

Data and Code Availability Statement:
The data that support the findings of this study are openly available in Zenodo at