For most consumer species, winter represents a period of harsh food conditions in addition to the physiological strain that results from the low ambient temperatures. In size-structured populations, larger-bodied individuals do better during winter as they have larger energy reserves to buffer starvation periods. In contrast, smaller-bodied individuals do better under growing conditions, as they have lower maintenance costs. We study how the interplay between size-dependent life-history processes and seasonal changes in temperature and food availability shape the long-term dynamics of a size-structured consumer population and its unstructured resource. We show that the size dependence of maintenance requirements translates into a minimum body size that is needed for surviving starvation when consumers can adapt only to a limited extent to the low food densities in winter. This size threshold can lead to population extinction because adult individuals suffer only a little during winter and hence produce large numbers of offspring. Due to population feedback on the resource and intense intra-cohort competition, newborn consumers then fail to reach the size threshold for survival. Under these conditions, small numbers of individuals can survive, increase in density, and build up a population, which will subsequently go extinct due to its feedback on the resource. High juvenile mortality may prevent this ecological suicide from occurring, as it releases resource competition among newborns and speeds up their growth. In size-structured populations, annual fluctuations in temperature and food availability may thus lead to a conflict between individual fitness and population persistence.
- Consumer-resource interaction
- Population dynamics