Offspring produced by older parents often have reduced longevity, termed the Lansing effect. Because adults usually have similar-aged mates, it is difficult to separate effects of maternal and paternal age, and environmental circumstances are also likely to influence offspring outcomes. The mechanisms underlying the Lansing effect are poorly understood. Variation in telomere length and loss, particularly in early life, is linked to longevity in many vertebrates, and therefore changes in offspring telomere dynamics could be very important in this context. We examined the effect of maternal age and environment on offspring telomere length in zebra finches. We kept mothers under either control (ad libitum food) or more challenging (unpredictable food) circumstances and experimentally minimized paternal age and mate choice effects. Irrespective of the maternal environment, there was a substantial negative effect of maternal age on offspring telomere length, evident in longitudinal and cross-sectional comparisons (average of 39% shorter). Furthermore, in young mothers, sons reared by challenged mothers had significantly shorter telomere lengths than sons reared by control mothers. This effect disappeared when the mothers were old, and was absent in daughters. These findings highlight the importance of telomere dynamics as inter-generational mediators of the evolutionary processes determining optimal age-specific reproductive effort and sex allocation.
Age Factors Animals Cross-Sectional Studies Female Finchesphysiology Longitudinal Studies Male Maternal Age Songbirdsphysiology Stress, Physiological Telomerephysiology