Telomere heritability and parental age at conception effects in a wild avian population

Alexandra M. Sparks, Lewis G. Spurgin, Marco van der Velde, Eleanor A. Fairfield, Jan Komdeur, Terry Burke, David S. Richardson, Hannah L. Dugdale

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Individual variation in telomere length is predictive of health and mortality risk across a range of species. However, the relative influence of environmental and genetic variation on individual telomere length in wild populations remains poorly understood. Heritability of telomere length has primarily been calculated using parent–offspring regression which can be confounded by shared environments. To control for confounding variables, quantitative genetic “animal models” can be used, but few studies have applied animal models in wild populations. Furthermore, parental age at conception may also influence offspring telomere length, but most studies have been cross‐sectional. We investigated within‐ and between‐parental age at conception effects and heritability of telomere length in the Seychelles warbler using measures from birds caught over 20 years and a multigenerational pedigree. We found a weak negative within‐paternal age at conception effect (as fathers aged, their offspring had shorter telomeres) and a weak positive between‐maternal age at conception effect (females that survived to older ages had offspring with longer telomeres). Animal models provided evidence that heritability and evolvability of telomere length were low in this population, and that variation in telomere length was not driven by early‐life effects of hatch period or parental identities. Quantitative polymerase chain reaction plate had a large influence on telomere length variation and not accounting for it in the models would have underestimated heritability. Our study illustrates the need to include and account for technical variation in order to accurately estimate heritability, as well as other environmental effects, on telomere length in natural populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6324-6338
Number of pages15
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number23
Early online date15 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


  • Seychelles warbler
  • animal model
  • heritability
  • maternal age at conception
  • paternal age at conception
  • telomere length

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