A theoretical model of the evolution of actuarial senescence under environmental stress

Exp Gerontol. 2015 Nov;71:80-8. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2015.08.009. Epub 2015 Aug 31.


Free-living organisms are exposed to a wide range of stressors, all of which can disrupt components of stress-related and detoxification physiology. The subsequent accumulation of somatic damage is widely believed to play a major role in the evolution of senescence. Organisms have evolved sophisticated physiological regulatory mechanisms to maintain homeostasis in response to environmental perturbations, but these systems are likely to be constrained in their ability to optimise robustness to multiple stressors due to functional correlations among related traits. While evolutionary change can accelerate due to human ecological impacts, it remains to be understood how exposure to multiple environmental stressors could affect senescence rates and subsequently population dynamics and fitness. We used a theoretical evolutionary framework to quantify the potential consequences for the evolution of actuarial senescence in response to exposure to simultaneous physiological stressors--one versus multiple and additive versus synergistic--in a hypothetical population of avian "urban adapters". In a model in which multiple stressors have additive effects on physiology, species may retain greater capacity to recover, or respond adaptively, to environmental challenges. However, in the presence of high synergy, physiological dysregulation suddenly occurs, leading to a rapid increase in age-dependent mortality and subsequent population collapse. Our results suggest that, if the synergistic model is correct, population crashes in environmentally-stressed species could happen quickly and with little warning, as physiological thresholds of stress resistance are overcome.

Keywords: Ageing; Birds; Environmental stress; Evolutionary model; Senescence; Urban.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Aging / genetics
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Birds / physiology
  • Environment*
  • Longevity / physiology
  • Models, Biological*
  • Population Dynamics
  • Reproduction / physiology
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*