© 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.
Telomeres are protective DNA-protein complexes located at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes, whose length has been shown to predict life-history parameters in various species. Although this suggests that telomere length is subject to natural selection, its evolutionary dynamics crucially depends on its heritability. Using pedigree data for a population of white-throated dippers (Cinclus cinclus), we test whether and how variation in early-life relative telomere length (RTL, measured as the number of telomeric repeats relative to a control gene using qPCR) is transmitted across generations. We disentangle the relative effects of genes and environment and test for sex-specific patterns of inheritance. There was strong and significant resemblance among offspring sharing the same nest and offspring of the same cohort. Furthermore, although offspring resemble their mother, and there is some indication for an effect of inbreeding, additive genetic variance and heritability are close to zero. We find no evidence for a role of either maternal imprinting or Z-linked inheritance in generating these patterns, suggesting they are due to non-genetic maternal and common environment effects instead. We conclude that in this wild bird population, environmental factors are the main drivers of variation in early-life RTL, which will severely bias estimates of heritability when not modelled explicitly.