Bottom of the heap: having heavier competitors accelerates early-life telomere loss in the European starling, sturnus vulgaris

Nettle, D., Monaghan, P. , Boner, W. , Gillespie, R. and Bateson, M. (2013) Bottom of the heap: having heavier competitors accelerates early-life telomere loss in the European starling, sturnus vulgaris. PLoS ONE, 8(12), e83617. (doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083617) (PMID:24386235) (PMCID:PMC3873947)

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Early-life adversity is associated with poorer health and survival in adulthood in humans and other animals. One pathway by which early-life environmental stressors could affect the adult phenotype is via effects on telomere dynamics. Several studies have shown that early-life adversity is associated with relatively short telomeres, but these are often cross-sectional and usually correlational in design. Here, we present a novel experimental system for studying the relationship between early-life adversity and telomere dynamics using a wild bird, the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris). We used cross-fostering to experimentally assign sibling chicks to either small or large broods for twelve days of the growth period. We measured telomere length in red blood cells using quantitative PCR near the beginning of the experimental manipulation (4 days old), at the end of the experimental manipulation (15 days old), and once the birds were independent (55 days old). Being in a larger brood slowed growth and retarded wing development and the timing of fledging. We found no evidence that overall brood size affected telomere dynamics. However, the greater the number of competitors above the focal bird in the within-brood size hierarchy, the greater was the telomere loss during the period of the experimental manipulation. The number of competitors below the focal in the hierarchy had no effect. The effect of heavier competitors was still evident when we controlled for the weight of the focal bird at the end of the manipulation, suggesting it was not due to retarded growth per se. Moreover, the impact of early competition on telomeres was still evident at independence, suggesting persistence beyond early life. Our study provides experimental support for the hypothesis that social stress, in this case induced by the presence of a greater number of dominant competitors, accelerates the rate of telomere loss.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Monaghan, Professor Pat and Gillespie, Mr Robert and Boner, Dr Winnie
Authors: Nettle, D., Monaghan, P., Boner, W., Gillespie, R., and Bateson, M.
College/School:College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Biodiversity, One Health & Veterinary Medicine
Journal Name:PLoS ONE
Publisher:Public Library of Science
ISSN (Online):1932-6203
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2013 The Authors
First Published:First published in PLoS ONE 8(12):e83617
Publisher Policy:Reproduced under a Creative Commons License

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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
590411Early life adversity, telomere length and adult cognition: the starling as an experimental modelPatricia MonaghanBiotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)BB/J015091/1RI BIODIVERSITY ANIMAL HEALTH & COMPMED