Published July 30, 2021 | Version v1
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Causes and consequences of telomere lengthening in a wild vertebrate population

  • 1. University of East Anglia
  • 2. University of Groningen
  • 3. University of Sheffield


Telomeres have been advocated to be important markers of biological age in evolutionary and ecological studies. Telomeres usually shorten with age, and shortening is frequently associated with environmental stressors and increased subsequent mortality. Telomere lengthening – an apparent increase in telomere length between repeated samples from the same individual – also occurs. However, the exact circumstances, and consequences, of telomere lengthening are poorly understood. Using longitudinal data from the Seychelles warbler (Acrocephalus sechellensis), we tested whether telomere lengthening – which occurs in adults of this species – is associated with specific stressors (reproductive effort, food availability, malarial infection and cooperative breeding) and predicts subsequent survival. In females, telomere shortening was observed under greater stress (i.e. low food availability, malaria infection), while telomere lengthening was observed in females experiencing lower stress (i.e. high food availability, assisted by helpers, without malaria). The telomere dynamics of males were not associated with the key stressors tested. These results indicate that, at least for females, telomere lengthening occurs in circumstances more conducive to self-maintenance. Importantly, both females and males with lengthened telomeres had improved subsequent survival relative to individuals that displayed unchanged, or shortened, telomeres – indicating that telomere lengthening is associated with individual fitness. These results demonstrate that telomere dynamics are bidirectionally responsive to the level of stress that an individual faces, but may poorly reflect the accumulation of stress over the lifetime. This study challenges how we think of telomeres as a marker of biological age.


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