Life-history theory predicts that within a species, reproduction and survival rates will differ among populations that differ in resource availability or predation rates through phenotypic plasticity. When populations are near carrying capacity (K) or when they are declining due to reduced prey resources, the average age at 1st reproduction (average AFR) is predicted to be older than in populations below K. Differences between the trajectories of northern sea otter (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) populations in Alaska provides an opportunity to examine phenotypic plasticity. Using premolar teeth or reproductive tracts, we estimated average AFR from demographically distinct populations of sea otters in Alaska. We obtained samples from 2 populations near K, Prince William Sound (PWS) and the Aleutian Archipelago (archived samples), and from 2 populations below K, the Kodiak Archipelago and Sitka. The average AFR was lower in populations below K (3.60 years ± 0.16 SD) compared to those near K (4.21 ± 0.13 years, P < 0.001), and differed among all populations, with the Aleutian population possessing the oldest average AFR (4.29 ± 0.09 years) followed by PWS (4.05 ± 0.24 years), Sitka (3.80 ± 0.21 years), and Kodiak (3.19 ± 0.37 years). The difference in average AFR among populations supports life-history theory and provides evidence of phenotypic plasticity in sea otters. Our findings highlight the value of using average AFR as a tool for monitoring mammalian populations.
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