Small mammals usually produce large litters of altricial young, resulting in high reproductive rates. In contrast, cavies give birth to few precocial young after a long gestation. The price of this reproductive strategy is a low intrinsic rate of natural increase. We investigated if the patterns of reproduction in a wild population of Cavia magna are consistent with the hypotheses that cavies can increase their reproductive output by breeding aseasonally and by maturing extremely early. We collected data on reproduction and growth by capture–recapture during a 26-month field study in a wetland in Uruguay, and from a laboratory population founded with individuals from the same region. Among the Caviinae, C. magna is particularly precocial, with individual neonates weighing on average 18% of maternal mass. Reproduction was mostly seasonal, with the main birth season starting at the end of September (austral spring) and extending until May in 1999 and February in 2000, respectively, with only a few females reproducing during the 1st but not the 2nd austral winter. Individual females produced on average 3 litters per year. Some females born in early spring conceived successfully between the age of 30 and 45 days, similar to females in the laboratory. The remainder of the 1st spring cohort and females of subsequent birth cohorts delayed reproduction until the following spring. Body condition and growth rates were highest in the spring, declined through the year, and varied between years, and may be the proximate factors determining whether an adult female or a juvenile initiates breeding. Breeding opportunistically whenever conditions allow might partly compensate for the low reproductive rate of cavies.
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