Individuals in free-living animal populations generally differ substantially in reproductive success, lifespan and other fitness-related traits, but the molecular mechanisms underlying this variation are poorly understood. Telomere length and dynamics are candidate traits explaining this variation, as long telomeres predict a higher survival probability and telomere loss has been shown to reflect experienced "life stress." However, telomere dynamics among very long-lived species are unresolved. Additionally, it is generally not well understood how telomeres relate to reproductive success or sex. We measured telomere length and dynamics in erythrocytes to assess their relationship to age, sex and reproduction in Cory's shearwaters (Calonectris borealis), a long-lived seabird, in the context of a long-term study. Adult males had on average 231 bp longer telomeres than females, independent of age. In females, telomere length changed relatively little with age, whereas male telomere length declined significantly. Telomere shortening within males from one year to the next was three times higher than the interannual shortening rate based on cross-sectional data of males. Past long-term reproductive success was sex-specifically reflected in age-corrected telomere length: males with on average high fledgling production were characterized by shorter telomeres, whereas successful females had longer telomeres, and we discuss hypotheses that may explain this contrast. In conclusion, telomere length and dynamics in relation to age and reproduction are sex-dependent in Cory's shearwaters and these findings contribute to our understanding of what characterises individual variation in fitness.
- INDIVIDUAL HETEROGENEITY
- PARENTAL CARE