Background: Normal and pathological processes entail the production of oxidative substances that can damage biological molecules and harm physiological functions. Organisms have evolved complex mechanisms of antioxidant defense, and any imbalance between oxidative challenge and antioxidant protection can depress fitness components and accelerate senescence. While the role of oxidative stress in pathogenesis and aging has been studied intensively in humans and model animal species under laboratory conditions, there is a dearth of knowledge on its role in shaping life-histories of animals under natural selection regimes. Yet, given the pervasive nature and likely fitness consequences of oxidative damage, it can be expected that the need to secure efficient antioxidant protection is powerful in molding the evolutionary ecology of animals. Here, we test whether overall antioxidant defense varies with age and predicts long-term survival, using a wild population of a migratory passerine bird, the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), as a model.
Methodology/principal findings: Plasma antioxidant capacity (AOC) of breeding individuals was measured using standard protocols and annual survival was monitored over five years (2006-2010) on a large sample of selection episodes. AOC did not covary with age in longitudinal analyses after discounting the effect of selection. AOC positively predicted annual survival independently of sex. Individuals were highly consistent in their relative levels of AOC, implying the existence of additive genetic variance and/or environmental (including early maternal) components consistently acting through their lives.
Conclusions: Using longitudinal data we showed that high levels of antioxidant protection positively predict long-term survival in a wild animal population. Present results are therefore novel in disclosing a role for antioxidant protection in determining survival under natural conditions, strongly demanding for more longitudinal eco-physiological studies of life-histories in relation to oxidative stress in wild populations.