Longer telomeres during early life predict higher lifetime reproductive success in females but not males

Britt J. Heidinger, Aurelia C. Kucera, Jeff D. Kittilson, David F. Westneat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The mechanisms that contribute to variation in lifetime reproductive success are not well understood. One possibility is that telomeres, conserved DNA sequences at chromosome ends that often shorten with age and stress exposures, may reflect differences in vital processes or influence fitness. Telomere length often predicts longevity, but longevity is only one component of fitness and little is known about how lifetime reproductive success is related to telomere dynamics in wild populations. We examined the relationships between telomere length beginning in early life, telomere loss into adulthood and lifetime reproductive success in free-living house sparrows (Passer domesticus). We found that females, but not males, with longer telomeres during early life had higher lifetime reproductive success, owing to associations with longevity and not reproduction per year or attempt. Telomeres decreased with age in both sexes, but telomere loss was not associated with lifetime reproductive success. In this species, telomeres may reflect differences in quality or condition rather than the pace of life, but only in females. Sexually discordant selection on telomeres is expected to influence the stability and maintenance of within population variation in telomere dynamics and suggests that any role telomeres play in mediating life-history trade-offs may be sex specific.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20210560
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1951
StatePublished - May 26 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s).


  • house sparrow
  • lifetime reproductive success
  • longevity
  • pace-of-life hypothesis
  • quality hypothesis
  • stressors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Microbiology (all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology (all)
  • Environmental Science (all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (all)


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