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Telomere length reflects individual quality in free-living adult king penguins

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Abstract

Growing evidence suggests that telomeres, non-coding DNA sequences that shorten with age and stress, are related in an undefined way to individual breeding performances and survival rates in several species. Short telomeres and elevated shortening rates are typically associated with life stress and low health. As such, telomeres could serve as an integrative proxy of individual quality, describing the overall biological state of an individual at a given age. Telomere length could be associated with the decline of an array of physiological traits in age-controlled individuals. Here, we investigated the links between individuals’ relative telomere length, breeding performance and various physiological (body condition, natural antibody levels) and life history (age, past breeding success) parameters in a long-lived seabird species, the king penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus. While we observed no link between relative telomere length and age, we found that birds with longer telomeres arrived earlier for breeding at the colony, and had higher breeding performances (i.e. the amount of time adults managed to maintain their chicks alive, and ultimately breeding success) than individuals with shorter telomeres. Further, we observed a positive correlation between telomere length and natural antibody levels. Taken together, our results add to the growing evidence that telomere length is likely to reflect individual quality difference in wild animal.

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Acknowledgments

Authors declare no conflict of interests. We are grateful to O. Prud’Homme for his help in the field, to S. Massemin-Challet and S. Zahn for their help in some sample analyses and to H. Gachot-Neveu for sexing birds. We thank all the volunteers who tagged penguins over the years. We are especially grateful to three anonymous reviewers provided constructive comments on the paper. This work was supported by the Institut Polaire Français Paul-Emile Victor (IPEV Prog. 137), the Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF), the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Programme Zone Atelier de Recherches sur l’Environnement Antarctique et Subantarctique), the French National Research Agency (ANR) 'PICASO' grant (ANR-2010-BLAN-1728-01), the Fondation Prince Albert II de Monaco http://www.fpa2 and the Fondation des Treilles (to M.L.V.), the AXA Research Fund (to V.A.V.), and a Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship (FP7-PEOPLE-IEF-2008, European Commission; project no. 235962, to C.L.B.).

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Correspondence to Maryline Le Vaillant.

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Le Vaillant, M., Viblanc, V.A., Saraux, C. et al. Telomere length reflects individual quality in free-living adult king penguins. Polar Biol 38, 2059–2067 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-015-1766-0

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