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Individual variation in survival probability due to differential responses to early-life environmental conditions is important in the evolution of life-histories and senescence. A biomarker allowing quantification of such individual variation, and which links early-life environmental conditions with survival by providing a measure of conditions experienced, is telomere length. Here, we examined telomere dynamics among 24 cohorts of European badgers (Meles meles). We found a complex cross-sectional relationship between telomere length and age, with no apparent loss over the first 29 months, but with both decreases and increases in telomere length at older ages. Overall, we found low within-individual consistency in telomere length across individual lifetimes. Importantly, we also observed increases in telomere length within individuals, which could not be explained by measurement error alone. We found no significant sex differences in telomere length, and provide evidence that early-life telomere length predicts lifespan. However, while early-life telomere length predicted survival to adulthood (≥1 year old), early-life telomere length did not predict adult survival probability. Furthermore, adult telomere length did not predict survival to the subsequent year. These results show that the relationship between early-life telomere length and lifespan was driven by conditions in early-life, where early-life telomere length varied strongly among cohorts. Our data provide evidence for associations between early-life telomere length and individual life-history, and highlight the dynamics of telomere length across individual lifetimes due to individuals experiencing different early-life environments. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Original publication




Journal article


Mol Ecol

Publication Date



biomarker, early-life conditions, mammal, senescence, telomere length, wild population