Fitness costs of reproduction are expected to be more pronounced when the environmental conditions deteriorate. We took advantage of a natural experiment to investigate the costs of reproduction among common eiders (Somateria mollissima) nesting at a site in the Arctic, where an avian cholera epizootic appeared at different magnitudes. We tested the predictions that larger reproductive effort (clutch size) is associated with lower survival or breeding probability the following year, and that this relationship was more pronounced under heightened exposure to the disease. Our results indicate that large clutch sizes were associated with lower survival of female eider ducks, but only when there was heightened exposure to avian cholera, as indexed by eider mortality on site. No cost was observed when cholera was absent or when lesser exposure was evident. This supports the hypothesis that fitness costs of high reproductive effort are higher under unfavourable conditions such as a disease epizootic, and further indicates that being a conservative breeder can increase survival probability, given the presence of a highly virulent disease
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