Cool, dry nights and short heatwaves during growth result in longer telomeres in temperate songbird nestlings

Exposure to rising sublethal temperatures can affect development and somatic condition, and thereby Darwinian fitness. In the context of climate warming, these changes could have implications for population viability, but they can be subtle and consequently difficult to quantify. Using telomere length (TL) as a known biomarker of somatic condition in early life, we investigated the impact of pre‐hatching and nestling climate on six cohorts of wild nestling superb fairy wrens (Malurus cyaneus) in temperate south‐eastern Australia. Models incorporating only climate information from the nestling phase were best supported compared to those including the (pre‐)laying to incubation phase (previously shown to affect mass) or both phases combined. This implies that nestling TL is most sensitive to ambient climate in the nestling phase. The top model showed a negative relationship between early‐life TL and nestling mean daily minimum temperature when rainfall was low which gradually became positive with increasing rainfall. In addition, there was a positive relationship between TL and the frequency of hot days (daily maximum temperature ≥35°C), although these temperatures were rare and short‐term. Including other pre‐hatching and nestling period, climate variables (e.g., mean daily maximum temperature and mean diurnal temperature variability) did not improve the prediction of nestling TL. Overall, our results suggest that cooler nights when conditions are dry and short‐term temperature spikes above 35°C during development are conducive for somatic maintenance. While these findings indicate a potential pathway for climate warming to impact wildlife fitness, they emphasize the need to elucidate the mechanisms underlying these complex associations.


climate change, ecology, heat wave, juvenile, life history, young

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Eastwood Justin R., Dupoué Andreaz, Verhulst Simon, Cockburn Andrew, Peters Anne (2023). Cool, dry nights and short heatwaves during growth result in longer telomeres in temperate songbird nestlings. Molecular Ecology. 32 (19). 5382-5393.,

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