Ageing and reproduction: antioxidant supplementation alleviates telomere loss in wild birds

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Abstract

Reproduction is inherently costly. Environmental stressors, such as infection and limited food resources, can compromise investment at each breeding attempt. For example, recent data on captive birds showed that increased reproductive effort accelerates ageing. However, the effects of nutritional status and infection on ageing remain unknown. Telomeres function as protective caps at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes, and changes in telomere length is a commonly used proxy for ageing. To partially address the mechanisms of ageing following reproduction, we supplemented, medicated or administered a combined treatment to wild blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) breeding in central Spain during 2012. The nutritional supplement consisted of two different antioxidants, whereas the medication was an antimalarial treatment against blood parasites. We evaluated the effect of these manipulations on reproductive success and parasite loads in the first breeding season, and on changes in telomere length between two consecutive breeding seasons. Supplemented birds showed no reduction in blood parasite infections in 2012, although they exhibited higher body mass and fledging success. The antimalarial drugs reduced infections by several parasite species, but this had no effect on fitness parameters. In the following season, telomeres from supplemented birds had shortened less. Altogether, we found that supplementation with antioxidants provided fitness benefits in the short term and reduced telomere loss a year following treatment. Our results provide indirect empirical support for accelerated telomere loss as a cost of reproduction.

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