Background: Senescence has been widely detected among mammals, but its importance to fitness in wild populations remains controversial. According to evolutionary theories, senescence occurs at an age when selection is relatively weak, which in mammals can be predicted by adult survival rates. However, a recent analysis of senescence rates found more age-dependent mortalities in natural populations of longer lived mammal species. This has important implications to ageing research and for understanding the ecological relevance of senescence, yet so far these have not been widely appreciated. We re-address this question by comparing the mean and maximum life span of 125 mammal species. Specifically, we test the hypothesis that senescence occurs at a younger age relative to the mean natural life span in longer lived species.
Methodology/principal findings: We show, using phylogenetically-informed generalised least squares models, a significant log-log relationship between mean life span, as calculated from estimates of adult survival for natural populations, and maximum recorded life span among mammals (R2=0.57, p<0.0001). This provides further support for a key prediction of evolutionary theories of ageing. The slope of this relationship (0.353+/-0.052 s.e.m.), however, indicated that mammals with higher survival rates have a mean life span representing a greater fraction of their potential maximum life span: the ratio of maximum to mean life span decreased significantly from >10 in short-lived to approximately 1.5 in long-lived mammal species.
Conclusions/significance: We interpret the ratio of maximum to mean life span to be an index of the likelihood an individual will experience senescence, which largely determines maximum life span. Our results suggest that senescence occurs at an earlier age relative to the mean life span, and therefore is experienced by more individuals and remains under selection pressure, in long- compared to short-lived mammals. A minimum rate of somatic degradation may ultimately limit the natural life span of mammals. Our results also indicate that senescence and modulating factors like oxidative stress are increasingly important to the fitness of longer lived mammals (and vice versa).