Environmental stressors increase the secretion of glucocorticoids that in turn can shorten telomeres via oxidative damage. Modification of telomere length, as a result of adversity faced early in life, can modify an individual's phenotype. Studies in captivity have suggested a relationship between glucocorticoids and telomere length in developing individuals, however less is known about that relationship in natural populations.
In order to evaluate the effect of early environmental stressors on telomere length in natural populations, we compared baseline corticosterone (CORT) levels and telomere length in nestlings of the same age. We collected blood samples for hormone assay and telomere determination from two geographically distinct populations of the Thorn-tailed Rayadito (Aphrastura spinicauda) that differed in brood size; nestlings body mass and primary productivity. Within each population we used path analysis to evaluate the relationship between brood size, body mass, baseline CORT and telomere length.
Within each distinct population, path coefficients showed a positive relationship between brood size and baseline CORT and a strong and negative correlation between baseline CORT and telomere length. In general, nestlings that presented higher baseline CORT levels tended to present shorter telomeres. When comparing populations it was the low latitude population that presented higher levels of baseline CORT and shorter telomere length.
Taken together our results reveal the importance of the condition experienced early in life in affecting telomere length, and the relevance of integrative studies carried out in natural conditions.