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Shorter juvenile telomere length is associated with higher survival to spawning in migratory Atlantic salmon

McLennan, Darryl, Armstrong, John D., Stewart, David C., Mckelvey, Simon, Boner, Winnie, Monaghan, Pat, Metcalfe, Neil B.
Functional ecology 2017 v.31 no.11 pp. 2070-2079
Salmo salar, adults, biomarkers, biopsy, body size, endothermy, females, juveniles, longevity, males, migratory behavior, mortality, physiological state, risk, rivers, salmon, sexual maturity, spawning, spring, telomeres, transponders
The risk of mortality associated with a long‐distance migration will depend on an animal's physiological state, as well as the prevailing ecological conditions. Here, we assess whether juvenile telomere length, which in endotherms has been shown to be a biomarker of physiological state and expected life span, predicts whether wild Atlantic salmon Salmo salar successfully complete their marine migration. Over 1,800 juvenile fish were trapped, measured, passive integrated transponder tagged and a tissue biopsy taken when migrating as juveniles down‐river towards the sea. Survivors of the marine phase of the life cycle were then re‐trapped and re‐sampled when returning to the river to spawn as sexually mature adults, 1.5–2.5 years later. Most individuals experienced a reduction in telomere length during the marine migratory phase of their life cycle. While the relative rate of telomere loss was greater in males than females, telomere loss was unrelated to growth at sea. Contrary to expectations, salmon that had the shortest telomeres at the time of the outward migration had the greatest probability of surviving through to the return migration. This effect, independent of body size, may indicate a trade‐off between investment in readiness for marine life (which favours high glucocorticoid levels, known to increase telomere attrition in other vertebrate species) and investment in telomere maintenance. Survival was also significantly influenced by the seasonal timing of outward migration, with the fish migrating downstream earliest in the spring having the highest probability of return. This study reveals that telomere length is associated with survival, although in ways that contrast with patterns seen in endotherms. This illustrates that while telomeres may be universally important for chromosome protection, the potential for telomere dynamics to predict performance may vary across taxa. A plain language summary is available for this article.