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Suboptimal conditions during development can shorten telomeres, the protective DNA caps on the end of chromosomes. Shorter early-life telomere length (TL) can indicate reduced somatic maintenance, leading to lower survival and shorter lifespan. However, despite some clear evidence, not all studies show a relationship between early-life TL and survival or lifespan, which may be due to differences in biology or study design (e.g., survival period measured). In superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus), we assessed whether early-life TL predicts mortality across different life-history stages (fledgling, juvenile, adult). However, in contrast to a similar study on a congener, early-life TL did not predict mortality across any life stage in this species. We then performed a meta-analysis including 32 effect sizes from 23 studies (15 birds and three mammals) to quantify the effect of early-life TL on mortality whilst taking into consideration potential sources of biological and methodological variation. Overall, the effect of early-life TL on mortality was significant, corresponding to a 15% reduction in mortality risk with each standard deviation increase in TL. However, the effect became weaker when correcting for publication bias. Contrary to our predictions, there was no evidence that effects of early-life TL on mortality varied with species lifespan or the period over which survival was measured. However, negative effects of early-life TL on mortality risk were pervasive throughout life. These results imply that effects of early-life TL on mortality are more likely to be context-dependent than age-dependent, although substantial power and publication bias issues highlight the need for more research.
- superb fairy-wren