I have always loved working in the field. While others remain indoors, chained to their desks and computers, much of my work requires paddling canoes on beautiful lakes to record behavior of loons. It is a dream job. Recent findings, though, are forcing us back into the laboratory.
Why must we return to the lab? Most of you know already from recent posts that male loons senesce dramatically in their mid teens and that they also become aggressive at that age. But the fact that males decline, whereas females do not, raises vexing questions about underlying physiological causes of male decline. Does male health hit the skids because of the cumulative impact of blood parasites? Does the greater body size of males make it more difficult for them to maintain good health throughout their lives? Is male decline linked in some fashion to conditions faced during the chick phase? As always happens in science, one finding, even a very clear one, raises a legion of related questions.
Fortunately, we can answer many such questions by taking small blood samples from our loons at the time of capture. Jeremy Spool, a soon-to-be-Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin-Madison, supervised the taking of these samples, which can tell us about hormone levels, parasites, and genetic patterns. Jeremy also completed a preliminary wave of analyses and has made an interesting discovery with regards to telomeres.
First some background. Telomeres are “end caps” on chromosomes — composed of many repeated DNA sequences — that protect chromosomes when they are replicated during cell division. In both humans and loons, the sequence of repeated DNA building blocks (nucleotides) that comprise telomeres is the same: TTAGGG. Telomeres grow shorter with age and with illness in humans and many other animals. Human babies have chromosomes capped with about 2,500 repeats of TTAGGG; older humans have only about 800 such repeats. A number of researchers have found that shortening of telomeres is related to stressful conditions faced by non-human animals. For example, one study reported that cormorants and albatrosses hatched late in the breeding season showed greater shortening of telomeres — possibly indicating more rapid aging — than did individuals born early in the breeding season. A good deal of work remains to be done on telomeres to determine if they can predict patterns of aging and body condition, but there are some promising signs that they can do so.
Jeremy analyzed telomere length in loon blood samples from 2017 to see if: 1) telomere length was correlated with age, and 2) males and females differed in telomere length. He noted a weak tendency for male telomeres to shorten with age. We will have to add more data to see if the pattern holds up. On the other hand, Jeremy also found that females had telomeres significantly longer than those of males (see figure, above). Since we know that female loons live longer than males and do not experience a sudden decline in condition in their mid teens, this pattern is as we might have predicted.
What does the telomere pattern tell us? While it is vaguely comforting to find a physiological correlate to confirm the difference in aging pattern between male and female loons, telomere shortening is still a mystery in animals generally — and most certainly in loons. We can draw no immediate link between short telomeres and any other aspect of physiology, like parasite load, immunological capacity, or even age. But the male/female difference gives us hope that telomeres might predict body condition, disease resistance, and/or life expectancy, within each sex. If so, then measuring of males’ telomeres might permit us to predict if and when they are near death and should begin behaving aggressively — to allow themselves one last desperate reproductive gasp. Moreover, if young loons, like cormorants, pay a price by losing some of their telomeres from the stress of being hatched late in a breeding season, then differences in hatching date might help us solve the enduring mystery of why some male loons cannot survive past their mid teens, while others thrive well into their 20s.