Early-life conditions impact juvenile telomere length, but do not predict later life-history strategies or fitness in a wild vertebrate

Janske van de Crommenacker, Martijn Hammers, Hannah L. Dugdale, Terry A. Burke, Jan Komdeur, David S. Richardson

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3 Citations (Scopus)


Environmental conditions experienced during early life may have long-lasting effects on later-life phenotypes and fitness. Individuals experiencing poor early-life conditions may suffer subsequent fitness constraints. Alternatively, individuals may use a strategic “Predictive Adaptive Response” (PAR), whereby they respond—in terms of physiology or life-history strategy—to the conditions experienced in early life to maximize later-life fitness. Particularly, the Future Lifespan Expectation (FLE) PAR hypothesis predicts that when poor early-life conditions negatively impact an individual's physiological state, it will accelerate its reproductive schedule to maximize fitness during its shorter predicted life span. We aimed to measure the impact of early-life conditions and resulting fitness across individual lifetimes to test predictions of the FLE hypothesis in a wild, long-lived model species. Using a long-term individual-based dataset, we investigated how early-life conditions are linked with subsequent fitness in an isolated population of the Seychelles warbler Acrocephalus sechellensis. How individuals experience early-life environmental conditions may vary greatly, so we also tested whether telomere length—shorter telomers are a biomarker of an individual's exposure to stress—can provide an effective measure of the individual-specific impact of early-life conditions. Specifically, under the FLE hypothesis, we would expect shorter telomeres to be associated with accelerated reproduction. Contrary to expectations, shorter juvenile telomere length was not associated with poor early-life conditions, but instead with better conditions, probably as a result of faster juvenile growth. Furthermore, neither juvenile telomere length, nor other measures of early-life conditions, were associated with age of first reproduction or the number of offspring produced during early life in either sex. We found no support for the FLE hypothesis. However, for males, poor early-life body condition was associated with lower first-year survival and reduced longevity, indicating that poor early-life conditions pose subsequent fitness constraints. Our results also showed that using juvenile telomere length as a measure of early-life conditions requires caution, as it is likely to not only reflect environmental stress but also other processes such as growth.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere8971
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number6
Early online date20 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


  • constraints
  • early-life environmental conditions
  • future life span expectation hypothesis
  • juvenile telomere length
  • natural wild population
  • predictive adaptive responses
  • Seychelles warbler

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