University of Oulu

Rickard, I.J., Vullioud, C., Rousset, F. et al. Mothers with higher twinning propensity had lower fertility in pre-industrial Europe. Nat Commun 13, 2886 (2022).

Mothers with higher twinning propensity had lower fertility in pre-industrial Europe

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Author: Rickard, Ian J.1,2; Vullioud, Colin2; Rousset, François3;
Organizations: 1Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Durham, UK
2Department of Evolutionary Genetics, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, Germany
3Institut des Sciences de l’Évolution (ISEM), Université de Montpellier, CNRS, EPHE, IRD, Montpellier, France
4Center for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, Penryn, UK
5Department of Social Research, University of Turku, Turku, Finland
6Department of Biology, University of Turku, Turku, Finland
7Department of History, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
8Department of Biology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
9Institute for Philosophy, Justus Liebig University Gießen, Giessen, Germany
10Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 0.9 MB)
Persistent link:
Language: English
Published: Springer Nature, 2022
Publish Date: 2023-01-27


Historically, mothers producing twins gave birth, on average, more often than non-twinners. This observation has been interpreted as twinners having higher intrinsic fertility — a tendency to conceive easily irrespective of age and other factors — which has shaped both hypotheses about why twinning persists and varies across populations, and the design of medical studies on female fertility. Here we show in >20k pre-industrial European mothers that this interpretation results from an ecological fallacy: twinners had more births not due to higher intrinsic fertility, but because mothers that gave birth more accumulated more opportunities to produce twins. Controlling for variation in the exposure to the risk of twinning reveals that mothers with higher twinning propensity — a physiological predisposition to producing twins — had fewer births, and when twin mortality was high, fewer offspring reaching adulthood. Twinning rates may thus be driven by variation in its mortality costs, rather than variation in intrinsic fertility.

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Series: Nature communications
ISSN: 2041-1723
ISSN-E: 2041-1723
ISSN-L: 2041-1723
Volume: 13
Issue: 1
Article number: 2886
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-30366-9
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 1181 Ecology, evolutionary biology
Funding: The authors thank all the people, too numerous to name, who contributed to generating the datasets used in this study. We also thank Jean Michel Gaillard, Ruth Mace, and Olivia Judson for comments on our manuscript. I.J.R. was supported by Durham University and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). V.L. was supported by the Academy of Finland. I.J.R., A.C. and V.L. also thank the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin which hosted these authors during part of this research. Simulations were run on the DZG server provided by the Leibniz IZW; on the MESO@LR platform, financed by the Occitanie Region, Montpellier Mediterranean Metropole and the University of Montpellier; and on the Montpellier Bioinformatics Biodiversity platform supported by the LabEx CeMEB, an ANR “Investissements d’avenir” program (ANR-10-LABX-04-01). This work was also funded by the Academy of Finland grants no. 317808, 320162, 325857 and 331400 (S.H. and J.E.P.), the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland via the NetResilience consortium grant no. 345185 and 345183 (V.L.), the Kone Foundation grants no. 086809, 088423 and 088423 (S.H. and R.K.), and the Swiss National Science Foundation grants no. 31003A_159462 (E.P. and D.W.). This article was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) - project number 491292795. Open Access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL.
Dataset Reference: The data generated in this study are provided in Supplementary Data 1. They are also available within the supporting R package called twinR ( which has been archived within the Zenodo repository:
Copyright information: © The Author(s) 2022. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit