Telomere length correlates with physiological and behavioural responses of a long-lived seabird to an ecologically relevant challenge

Publication Date



Determinants of individual variation in reallocation of limited resources towards self-maintenance versus reproduction are not well known. We tested the hypothesis that individual heterogeneity in long-term ‘somatic state’ (i) explains variation in endocrine and behavioural responses to environmental challenges, and (ii) is associated with variation in strategies for allocating to self-maintenance versus reproduction. We used relative telomere length as an indicator of somatic state and experimentally generated an abrupt short-term reduction of food availability (withdrawal of food supplementation) for free-living seabirds (black-legged kittiwakes, Rissa tridactyla). Incubating male kittiwakes responded to withdrawal by increasing circulating corticosterone and losing more weight compared to continuously supplemented controls. Males with longer telomeres increased time in directed travel regardless of treatment, while experiencing smaller increases in corticosterone. Males with longer telomeres fledged more chicks in the control group and tended to be more likely to return regardless of treatment. This study supports the hypothesis that somatic state can explain variation in short-term physiological and behavioural responses to challenges, and longer-term consequences for fitness. Male kittiwakes with longer telomeres appear to have prioritized investment in self over investment in offspring under challenging conditions.


Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B





Second Department

Animal Behavior

Open Access

Link to OA full text