Correlation in telomere lengths between feathers and blood cells in pied flycatchers

T Kärkkäinen* (Corresponding Author), Pierre Bize, A Stier

*Corresponding author for this work

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6 Citations (Scopus)
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The length of telomeres (i.e. the protective non-coding DNA repeat sequences capping the end of eukaryotic chromosomes) is drawing an increasing attention in ecology and evolution as a biomarker of individual state and fate. Bird erythrocytes are nucleated and telomere measurements using blood derived DNA has become the gold standard in avian biology. However, blood sampling is not trivial and not achievable under all field conditions. We investigated whether feather DNA could be used as an alternative or complementary approach to blood DNA when assessing telomere length with the quantitative PCR method. Indeed, investigating telomere length in different tissues may provide more detailed information regarding both the determinants and the importance of telomere length for avian life histories. We collected tertiary feathers on the same day as a blood sample in adult and 12-day-old nestling pied flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca). Our results show a positive but moderate relationship between telomere length measured using DNA derived from blood and feather samples. This relationship was stronger in nestlings than in adults. Nestlings had longer telomeres in blood than in feathers while no significant difference was observed in adults. Hence, our study demonstrates that feathers can provide a complementary approach to blood for telomere measurements in wild birds, and we discuss further methodological considerations when using feathers for telomere measures. Telomeres seem to show faster erosion with age in blood than feathers, which may account for the lower correlation in telomere lengths between the two tissues in adults.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02300
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number4
Early online date16 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020

Bibliographical note

We are grateful to Toni Laaksonen, Pauliina Teerikorpi, Ville Ojala, Wiebke Schuett, Corinna Adrian and Marie Hardenbicker for their help in the field, and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on the manuscript. This research was financially supported by the Turku Collegium for Science and Medicine (grant to AS) and Societas Pro Fauna et Flora Fennica, The Kuopio Naturalists’ Society, and Finnish Cultural Foundation Varsinais-Suomi regional fund (grants to TK). The authors declare to have no conflict of interests.

Dataset used in this study will be publicly accessible on Figshare


  • telomeres
  • ageing
  • conservation physiology
  • blood sampling
  • stress
  • DNA
  • LONG


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