Effects of brood size manipulation and common origin on phenotype and telomere length in nestling collared flycatchers

Marie Voillemot, Kathryn Hine, Sandrine Zahn, Francois Criscuolo, Lars Gustafsson, Blandine Doligez, Pierre Bize*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Evidence is accumulating that telomere length is a good predictor of life expectancy, especially early in life, thus calling for determining the factors that affect telomere length at this stage. Here, we investigated the relative influence of early growth conditions and origin (genetics and early maternal effects) on telomere length of collared flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis) at fledging. We experimentally transferred hatchlings among brood triplets to create reduced, control (i.e. unchanged final nestling number) and enlarged broods.

Results: Although our treatment significantly affected body mass at fledging, we found no evidence that increased sibling competition affected nestling tarsus length and telomere length. However, mixed models showed that brood triplets explained a significant part of the variance in body mass (18%) and telomere length (19%), but not tarsus length (13%), emphasizing that unmanipulated early environmental factors influenced telomere length. These models also revealed low, but significant, heritability of telomere length (h(2) = 0.09). For comparison, the heritability of nestling body mass and tarsus length was 0.36 and 0.39, respectively, which was in the range of previously published estimates for those two traits in this species.

Conclusion: Those findings in a wild bird population demonstrate that telomere length at the end of the growth period is weakly, but significantly, determined by genetic and/or maternal factors taking place before hatching. However, we found no evidence that the brood size manipulation experiment, and by extension the early growth conditions, influenced nestling telomere length. The weak heritability of telomere length suggests a close association with fitness in natural populations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number17
Number of pages8
JournalBMC Ecology
Early online date18 Aug 2012
Publication statusPublished - 18 Aug 2012

Bibliographical note

We are grateful to the numerous field assistants for help with data collection,
T. Horn for communication of personal data, and to the Swiss NSF
(grant n° 31003A_124988 to P.B.), the French National Scientific Research
Centre (INEE PEPS grant to B.D. and PICS to F.C. and P.B.) and the Swedish
Research Council (grant to L.G.) for financial support.
Blandine Doligez and Pierre Bize these authors share the seniorship of this


  • WILD
  • AGE


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