Senescence has been hypothesized to arise in part from age-related declines in immune performance, but the patterns and drivers of within-individual age-related changes in immunity remain virtually unexplored in natural populations. Here, using a long-term epidemiological study of wild European badgers (Meles meles), we (i) present evidence of a within-individual age-related decline in the response of a key immune-signalling cytokine, interferon-gamma (IFNγ), to ex vivo lymphocyte stimulation, and (ii) investigate three putative drivers of individual variation in the rate of this decline (sex, disease and immune cell telomere length; ICTL). That the within-individual rate of age-related decline markedly exceeded that at the population level suggests that individuals with weaker IFNγ responses are selectively lost from this population. IFNγ responses appeared to decrease with the progression of bovine tuberculosis infection (independent of age) and were weaker among males than females. However, neither sex nor disease influenced the rate of age-related decline in IFNγ response. Similarly, while ICTL also declines with age, variation in ICTL predicted neither among- nor within-individual variation in IFNγ response. Our findings provide evidence of within-individual age-related declines in immune performance in a wild mammal and highlight the likely complexity of the mechanisms that generate them.
Keywords: ageing; eco-immunology; immune-competence; immunity; multivariate; wild population.
© 2016 The Authors.