Twinning in humans: maternal heterogeneity in reproduction and survival

Shannen L. Robson, Ken R. Smith

Abstract

While humans usually give birth to singletons, dizygotic twinning occurs at low rates in all populations worldwide. We evaluate two hypotheses that have differing expectations about the effects of bearing twins on maternal lifetime reproduction and survival. The maternal depletion hypothesis argues that mothers of twins will suffer negative outcomes owing to the higher physiological costs associated with bearing multiples. Alternatively, twinning, while costly, may indicate mothers with a greater capacity to bear that cost. Drawing from the vast natural fertility data in the Utah Population Database, we compared the reproductive and survival events of 4603 mothers who bore twins and 54 183 who had not. These mothers were born between 1807 and 1899, lived at least to the age of 50 years and married once to men who were alive when their wives were 50. Results from proportional hazards and regression analyses are consistent with the second hypothesis. Mothers of twins exhibit lower postmenopausal mortality, shorter average inter-birth intervals, later ages at last birth and higher lifetime fertility than their singleton-only bearing counterparts. From the largest historical sample of twinning mothers yet published, we conclude that bearing twins is more likely for those with a robust phenotype and is a useful index of maternal heterogeneity.

  • Received March 16, 2011.
  • Accepted April 18, 2011.
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