Stressors interact across generations to influence offspring telomeres and survival

Rebecca C. Young, David F. Westneat, Jennifer Vangorder-Braid, Aubrey E. Sirman, Stefanie J. Siller, Jeffrey Kittilson, Anuj Ghimire, Britt J. Heidinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Parental stress often has long-term consequences for offspring. However, the mechanisms underlying these effects and how they are shaped by conditions offspring subsequently experience are poorly understood. Telomeres, which often shorten in response to stress and predict longevity, may contribute to, and/or reflect these cross-generational effects. Traditionally, parental stress is expected to have negative effects on offspring telomeres, but experimental studies in captive animals suggest that these effects may depend on the subsequent conditions that offspring experience. Yet, the degree to which parental stress influences and interacts with stress experienced by offspring to affect offspring telomeres and survival in free-living organisms is unknown. To assess this, we experimentally manipulated the stress exposure of free-living parent and offspring house sparrows (Passer domesticus). We found a weak, initial, negative effect of parental stress on offspring telomeres, but this effect was no longer evident at the end of post-natal development. Instead, the effects of parental stress depended on the natural sources of stress that offspring experienced during post-natal development whereby some outcomes were improved under more stressful rearing conditions. Thus, the effects of parental stress on offspring telomeres and survival are context-dependent and may involve compensatory mechanisms of potential benefit under some circumstances.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20220868
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1982
StatePublished - Sep 14 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding was provided by NSF award grant no. IOS-1656212 to B.J.H. and D.F.W. Sampling was conducted with permissions from the NDSU IACUC committee, the State of North Dakota and USFWS. Acknowledgements

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s).


  • cross-generational effects
  • early life conditions
  • parental effects
  • stress
  • telomeres

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


Dive into the research topics of 'Stressors interact across generations to influence offspring telomeres and survival'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this