Causes and consequences of variation in early-life telomere length in a bird metapopulation

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Michael Le Pepke, Thomas Kvalnes, Peter Sjolte Ranke, Yimen G Araya-Ajoy, Jonathan Wright, Bernt-Erik Sæther, Henrik Jensen, Thor Harald Ringsby


1. Environmental conditions during early-life development can have lasting effects on individual quality and fitness. Telomere length (TL) may correlate with early-life conditions and may be an important mediator or biomarker of individual quality or pace-of-life, as periods of increased energy demands can increase telomere attrition due to oxidative stress. Thus, knowledge of the mechanisms that generate variation in TL, and the relation between TL and fitness, is important in understanding the role of telomeres in ecology and life-history evolution.
2. Here, we investigate how environmental conditions and morphological traits are associated with early-life TL and if TL predicts natal dispersal probability or components of fitness in two populations of wild house sparrows (Passer domesticus).
3. We measured morphological traits and blood TL in 2746 nestlings from 20 cohorts (1994-2013) and retrieved data on weather conditions. We monitored population fluctuations, and individual survival and reproductive output using field observations and genetic pedigrees. We then used generalized linear mixed-effects models to test which factors affected TL in early-life, and if TL predicted dispersal propensity, or was associated with recruitment probability, mortality risk, or reproductive success.
4. We found a negative effect of population density on TL, but only in one of the populations. There was a curvilinear association between TL and the maximum daily North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index during incubation, suggesting that there are optimal weather conditions that result in the longest TL. Dispersers tended to have shorter telomeres than non-dispersers. TL did not predict survival, but we found a tendency for individuals with short telomeres to have higher annual reproductive success.
5. Our study showed how early-life TL is shaped by effects of growth, weather conditions and population density, supporting that environmental stressors negatively affect TL in wild populations. In addition, TL may be a mediator or biomarker of individual pace-of-life, with higher dispersal rates and annual reproduction tending to be associated with shorter early-life TL in this study. However, clear associations between early-life TL and individual fitness seems difficult to establish and may differ between different populations in the wild.



Animal Sciences, Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Life Sciences, Ornithology, Physiology


Demography, early-life, individual heterogeneity, pace-of-life, Stress, telomere dynamics


Published: 2021-10-16 19:37

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Data and Code Availability Statement:
All data is available on request from the first author, and it will be made available on a public repository upon publication of the manuscript.