Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Telomere dynamics in a long-lived bird, the barnacle goose

Angela Pauliny1*, Kjell Larsson23 and Donald Blomqvist1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Box 463, 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden

2 Department of Biology, Gotland University, 621 67, Visby, Sweden

3 Kalmar Maritime Academy, Linnaeus University, 391 82, Kalmar, Sweden

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:257  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-257

Published: 31 December 2012



Theories of ageing predict a trade-off between metabolism, reproduction, and maintenance. Species with low investment in early reproduction are thus expected to be able to evolve more efficient maintenance and repair mechanisms, allowing for a longer potential life span (intrinsic longevity). The erosion of telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of linear chromosomes, plays an important role in cellular and organismal senescence, signalling the onset of age-related disease due to accumulation of unrepaired somatic damage. Using extensive longitudinal data from a long-term study of a natural population of barnacle geese Branta leucopsis, we investigated individual rates of telomere length changes over two years in 34 birds between 0 and 22 years of age, covering almost 80% of the species’ lifespan.


We show that telomeres in this long-lived bird are very well maintained, as theoretically expected, with an average loss rate of only 5 base pairs per year among adults. We thus found no significant relationship between change in telomere length and age. However, telomeres tended to shorten at a faster pace in juveniles compared to adults. For the first time, we demonstrate a faster telomere attrition rate in females compared to males. We found no correlation between telomere loss rate and adult survival or change in body mass.


Our results add further support for a link between longevity and telomere maintenance, and highlight the complexities of telomere dynamics in natural populations.

Individual telomere rate of change; Longitudinal data; Rate of ageing; Senescence; Survival; Telomere maintenance