© 2015. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.
Conditions experienced during early life can have profound consequences for both short- and long-term fitness. Variation in the natal environment has been shown to influence survival and reproductive performance of entire cohorts in wild vertebrate populations. Telomere dynamics potentially provide a link between the early environment and long-term fitness outcomes, yet we know little about how the environment can influence telomere dynamics in early life. We found that environmental conditions during growth have an important influence on early-life telomere length (TL) and attrition in nestlings of a long-lived bird, the European storm petrel Hydrobates pelagicus. Nestlings reared under unfavourable environmental conditions experienced significantly greater telomere loss during postnatal development compared with nestlings reared under more favourable natal conditions, which displayed a negligible change in TL. There was, however, no significant difference in pre-fledging TL between cohorts. The results suggest that early-life telomere dynamics could contribute to the marked differences in life-history traits that can arise among cohorts reared under different environmental conditions. Early-life TL was also found to be a significant predictor of survival during the nestling phase, providing further evidence for a link between variation in TL and individual fitness. To what extent the relationship between early-life TL and mortality during the nestling phase is a consequence of genetic, parental and environmental factors is currently unknown, but it is an interesting area for future research. Accelerated telomere attrition under unfavourable conditions, as observed in this study, might play a role in mediating the effects of the early-life environment on later-life performance.