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No correlative evidence of costs of infection or immunity on leucocyte telomere length in a wild population of Soay sheep

Published: 2024


  • Sanjana Ravindran

  • Sarah L. Underwood

  • Jennifer Dorrens

  • Luise A. Seeker

  • Kathryn Watt

  • Rachael V. Wilbourn

  • Alexandra M. Sparks

  • Rona Sinclair

  • Zhulin Chen

  • Jill G. Pilkington

  • Tom N. McNeilly

  • Lea Harrington

  • Josephine M. Pemberton

  • Daniel H. Nussey

  • Hannah Froy

Is Part of:

Proceedings of the Royal Society B – Biological Sciences, 291, 20232946


Telomere length (TL) is a biomarker hypothesized to capture evolutionarily and ecologically important physiological costs of reproduction, infection and immunity. Few studies have estimated the relationships among infection status, immunity, TL and fitness in natural systems. The hypothesis that short telomeres predict reduced survival because they reflect costly consequences of infection and immune investment remains largely untested. Using longitudinal data from a free-living Soay sheep population, we tested whether leucocyte TL was predicted by infection with nematode parasites and antibody levels against those parasites. Helminth parasite burdens were positively associated with leucocyte TL in both lambs and adults, which is not consistent with TL reflecting infection costs. We found no association between TL and helminth-specific IgG levels in either young or old individuals which suggests TL does not reflect costs of an activated immune response or immunosenescence. Furthermore, we found no support for TL acting as a mediator of trade-offs between infection, immunity and subsequent survival in the wild. Our results suggest that while variation in TL could reflect short-term variation in resource investment or environmental conditions, it does not capture costs of infection and immunity, nor does it behave like a marker of an individual’s helminth-specific antibody immune response.

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