Individuals of the same age can differ substantially in the degree to which they have accumulated tissue damage, akin to bodily wear and tear, from past experiences. This accumulated tissue damage reflects the individual's biological age and may better predict physiological and behavioural performance than the individual's chronological age. However, at present it remains unclear how to reliably assess biological age in individual wild vertebrates.
We exposed hand-raised adult Eurasian blackbirds (Turdus merula) to a combination of repeated immune and disturbance stressors for over one year to determine the effects of chronic stress on potential biomarkers of biological ageing including telomere shortening, oxidative stress load, and glucocorticoid hormones. We also assessed general measures of individual condition including body mass and locomotor activity.
By the end of the experiment, stress-exposed birds showed greater decreases in telomere lengths. Stress-exposed birds also maintained higher circulating levels of oxidative damage compared with control birds. Other potential biomarkers such as concentrations of antioxidants and glucocorticoid hormone traits showed greater resilience and did not differ significantly between treatment groups.
The current data demonstrate that repeated exposure to experimental stressors affects the rate of biological ageing in adult Eurasian blackbirds. Both telomeres and oxidative damage were affected by repeated stress exposure and thus can serve as blood-derived biomarkers of biological ageing.