Telomeres, the terminal repetitive DNA sequences at the ends of linear chromosomes, have strong associations with longevity in some major taxa. Longevity has been linked to rate of decline in telomere length in birds and mammals, and absolute telomere length seems to be associated with body mass in mammals. Using a phylogenetic comparative method and 30 species of birds, we examined longevity (reflected by maximum lifespan), absolute telomere length, the rate of change in telomere length (TROC), and body mass (often strongly associated with longevity) to ascertain their degree of association. We divided lifespan into two life-history components, one reflected by body size (measured as body mass), and a component that was statistically independent of body mass. While both lifespan and body mass were strongly associated with a family tree of the species (viz., the phylogeny of the species), telomere measures were not. Telomere length was not significantly associated with longevity or body mass, or our measure of mass-independent lifespan. TROC, however, was strongly associated with mass-independent lifespan, but to a lesser degree with body mass. Our results supported an association of TROC and longevity, in particular longevity that was independent of body size and part of the pace-of-life syndrome of life histories.
Longevity is highly variable among animal species, and has coevolved with other of life-history traits, like body size and rates of reproduction. Telomeres, through their erosion over time, are one of the cell mechanisms that produce senescence at the cell level, and might even have an influence on the rate of ageing in whole organisms. However, uneroded telomeres are also risk factors of cell immortalization. The associations of telomere lengths, their rate of change, and life-history traits independent of body size are largely underexplored for birds. To test associations of life-history traits and telomere dynamics, we conducted a phylogenetic meta-analysis using studies of 53 species of birds. We restricted analyses to studies that applied the telomere restriction fragment length (TRF) method, and examined relationships between mean telomere length at the chick (Chick TL) and adult (Adult TL) stages, the mean rate of change in telomere length during life (TROC), and life-history traits. We examined 3 principal components of 12 life-history variables that represented: body size (PC1), the slow-fast continuum of pace-of-life (PC2) and post-fledging parental care (PC3). Phylogeny had at best a small-to-medium influence on Adult and Chick TL (r² = 0.190 and 0.138, respectively), but a substantial influence on TROC (r² = 0.688). Phylogeny strongly influenced life histories: PC1 (r² = 0.828), PC2 (0.838), and PC3 (0.613). Adult TL and Chick TL were poorly associated with the life-history variables. TROC, however, was negatively and moderate-to-strongly associated with PC2 (unadjusted r = -0.340; with phylogenetic correction, r = -0.490). Independent of body size, long-lived species with smaller clutches and slower embryonic rate of growth may exhibited less change in telomere length over their lifetimes. We suggest that telomere lengths may have diverged even among closely avian related species, yet telomere dynamics are strongly linked to the pace of life.