We used exogenous gonadotropin hormones to physiologically enlarge litter size in the bank vole (Clethrionomys glareolus). This method allowed the study design to include possible production costs of reproduction and a trade-off between offspring number and body size at birth. Furthermore, progeny rearing and survival and postpartum survival of the females took place in outdoor enclosures to capture salient naturalistic effects that might be present during the fall and early winter. The aim of the study was to assess the effects of the manipulation on the growth and survival of the offspring and on the reproductive effort, survival, and future fecundity of the mothers. Mean offspring body size was smaller in enlarged litters compared to control litters at weaning, but the differences disappeared by the winter. Differences in litter sizes disappeared before weaning age due to higher mortality in enlarged litters. In addition to the effects of the litter size, offspring performance was probably also influenced by the ability of the mother to support the litter. Experimental females had higher reproductive effort at birth, and they also tended to have higher mortality during nursing. Combined effects of high reproductive effort at birth and high investment in nursing the litter entailed costs for the experimental females in terms of decreased probability of producing a second litter and a decreased body mass gain. Thus, enlarged litter size had both survival and fecundity costs for the mothers. Our results suggest that the evolution of litter size and reproductive effort is determined by reproductive costs for the mothers as well as by a trade-off between offspring number and quality.
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Vol. 56 • No. 7