Among-population variation in telomere regulatory proteins and their potential role as hidden drivers of intraspecific variation in life history

Sarah E. Wolf, Mary J. Woodruff, David A. Chang van Oordt, Ethan D. Clotfelter, Daniel A. Cristol, Elizabeth P. Derryberry, Stephen M. Ferguson, Mark T. Stanback, Conor C. Taff, Maren N. Vitousek, David F. Westneat, Kimberly A. Rosvall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biologists aim to explain patterns of growth, reproduction and ageing that characterize life histories, yet we are just beginning to understand the proximate mechanisms that generate this diversity. Existing research in this area has focused on telomeres but has generally overlooked the telomere's most direct mediator, the shelterin protein complex. Shelterin proteins physically interact with the telomere to shape its shortening and repair. They also regulate metabolism and immune function, suggesting a potential role in life history variation in the wild. However, research on shelterin proteins is uncommon outside of biomolecular work. Intraspecific analyses can play an important role in resolving these unknowns because they reveal subtle variation in life history within and among populations. Here, we assessed ecogeographic variation in shelterin protein abundance across eight populations of tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) with previously documented variation in environmental and life history traits. Using the blood gene expression of four shelterin proteins in 12-day-old nestlings, we tested the hypothesis that shelterin protein gene expression varies latitudinally and in relation to both telomere length and life history. Shelterin protein gene expression differed among populations and tracked non-linear variation in latitude: nestlings from mid-latitudes expressed nearly double the shelterin mRNA on average than those at more northern and southern sites. However, telomere length was not significantly related to latitude. We next assessed whether telomere length and shelterin protein gene expression correlate with 12-day-old body mass and wing length, two proxies of nestling growth linked to future fecundity and survival. We found that body mass and wing length correlated more strongly (and significantly) with shelterin protein gene expression than with telomere length. These results highlight telomere regulatory shelterin proteins as potential mediators of life history variation among populations. Together with existing research linking shelterin proteins and life history variation within populations, these ecogeographic patterns underscore the need for continued integration of ecology, evolution and telomere biology, which together will advance understanding of the drivers of life history variation in nature.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
StateAccepted/In press - 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 The Authors. Journal of Animal Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society.


  • bird
  • latitude
  • life history
  • POT1
  • shelterin proteins
  • telomere
  • TPP1
  • TRF2

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


Dive into the research topics of 'Among-population variation in telomere regulatory proteins and their potential role as hidden drivers of intraspecific variation in life history'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this