The association between stressors and telomeres in non-human vertebrates: a meta-analysis

Ecol Lett. 2020 Feb;23(2):381-398. doi: 10.1111/ele.13426. Epub 2019 Nov 27.


Animal response to stressors such as harsh environmental conditions and demanding biological processes requires energy generated through increased mitochondrial activity. This results in the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). In vitro and some in vivo studies suggest that oxidative damage of DNA caused by ROS is responsible for telomere shortening. Since telomere length is correlated with survival in many vertebrates, telomere loss is hypothesised to trigger cellular ageing and/ or to reflect the harshness of the environment an individual has experienced. To improve our understanding of stress-induced telomere dynamics in non-human vertebrates, we analysed 109 relevant studies in a meta-analytical framework. Overall, the exposure to possible stressors was associated with shorter telomeres or higher telomere shortening rate (average effect size = -0.16 ± 0.03). This relationship was consistent for all phylogenetic classes and for all a priori-selected stressor categories. It was stronger in the case of pathogen infection, competition, reproductive effort and high activity level, which emphasises their importance in explaining intraspecific telomere length variability and, potentially, lifespan variability. Interestingly, the association between stressor exposure and telomeres in one hand, and oxidative stress in the other hand, covaried, suggesting the implication of oxidative stress in telomere dynamics.

Keywords: Ageing; competition; habitat quality; oxidative stress; reproduction; senescence; stressor; telomere.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cellular Senescence
  • Phylogeny
  • Telomere Shortening*
  • Telomere*
  • Vertebrates