Life-history strategies vary dramatically between the sexes, which may drive divergence in sex-specific senescence and mortality rates. Telomeres are tandem nucleotide repeats that protect the ends of chromosomes from erosion during cell division. Telomeres have been implicated in senescence and mortality because they tend to shorten with stress, growth and age. We investigated age-specific telomere length in female and male red-sided garter snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis. We hypothesized that age-specific telomere length would differ between males and females given their divergent reproductive strategies. Male garter snakes emerge from hibernation with high levels of corticosterone, which facilitates energy mobilization to fuel mate-searching, courtship and mating behaviours during a two to four week aphagous breeding period at the den site. Conversely, females remain at the dens for only about 4 days and seem to invest more energy in growth and cellular maintenance, as they usually reproduce biennially. As male investment in reproduction involves a yearly bout of physiologically stressful activities, while females prioritize self-maintenance, we predicted male snakes would experience more age-specific telomere loss than females. We investigated this prediction using skeletochronology to determine the ages of individuals and qPCR to determine telomere length in a cross-sectional study. For both sexes, telomere length was positively related to body condition. Telomere length decreased with age in male garter snakes, but remained stable in female snakes. There was no correlation between telomere length and growth in either sex, suggesting that our results are a consequence of divergent selection on life histories of males and females. Different selection on the sexes may be the physiological consequence of the sexual dimorphism and mating system dynamics displayed by this species.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3717511.
- Received October 3, 2016.
- Accepted March 6, 2017.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.