Egg viability, hatching asynchrony, hatching failure, Florida Scrub-Jay, suburbs


For many organisms, embryonic development begins directly after an egg (ovum) has been fertilized by sperm; however, some organisms delay the onset of embryonic development until conditions are favorable for raising young. This delayed onset of development could occur by delaying implantation of fertilized ovum on the uterine wall, as seen in many mammals. Birds delay embryonic development by laying a set of fertilized ova over a period of consecutive days. These fertilized ova are protected from the ambient environment by an exterior shell, and it is in this shell outside of the female s body that embryonic development occurs, but only when females initiate incubation. The number of fertilized ova (eggs) that can be laid by a single female in a single clutch varies among and within bird species, and understanding this variation remains a vital, unanswered question in ornithology. A latitudinal gradient in clutch size is widely recognized, but the reason for this pattern is unclear. Some birds lay relatively large clutches over many days, thus we should expect that eggs could withstand fairly long exposure to ambient temperature and remain viable. However, recent evidence suggests that egg viability declines with increased exposure to ambient temperatures. The egg viability hypothesis predicts that eggs will fail to hatch if exposed to warm ambient temperatures for prolonged periods. I conducted a natural experiment to determine whether egg viability can explain site-specific variation in hatching failure. Hatching failure is higher in a suburban population of Florida Scrub-Jays than it is in a wildland population, possibly because suburban scrub-jays lay larger clutches. Scrub-jays, like many bird species, lay one egg per day and begin incubation with the last-laid egg, thus first-laid eggs in the larger suburban clutches should be exposed to the warm ambient temperatures of sub-tropical Florida longer than first-laid eggs in the smaller clutches typical of the wildland population. As predicted, I found hatching failure is higher in first-laid eggs in the suburbs, and these eggs experience increased exposure to warm ambient temperatures. At both sites, females appear to begin incubation earlier in the laying period as ambient temperatures increase seasonally, possibly to minimize exposure to warm ambient temperatures and minimize hatching failure in first-laid eggs. However, early onset of incubation causes eggs to hatch asynchronously ( > 24 hours between the first and last-hatched egg), and hatching asynchrony increases within-brood size-asymmetries, which leads to an increased frequency of brood reduction (the nonrandom loss of last-hatched young because of starvation). Thus, a tradeoff may exist between beginning incubation earlier in the laying period to minimize hatching failure in first-laid eggs and delaying the onset of incubation to minimize hatching asynchrony and brood reduction. This tradeoff can have profound effects on avian clutch sizes, and may potentially explain the widely known negative relationship between latitude and clutch size.


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Graduation Date



Noss, Reed


Master of Science (M.S.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program









Release Date

December 2008

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)

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Biology Commons