MAR 24, 2019 12:27 PM PDT

Females are Healthier, Live Longer When They Get Help Raising Offspring

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

An international team of researchers wanted to know more about how aging and raising offspring are related, so they studied patterns in a social bird called the Seychelles warbler. They discovered that females of the species who had received help from other females in rearing offspring had gone on to live healthier, longer lives. This work, which was reported in Nature Communications, may help explain why species that live in cooperative social groups, like humans, often have longer lifespans. 

A Seychelles warbler family / Credit: Janske Van De Crommenacker

"There is huge variation in lifespan between different species, and also between individuals within a species. But we know very little about what causes one individual to live a long healthy life, and another to die young. Or indeed, why individuals in one species live much longer than individuals in another similar species,” explained Professor David S. Richardson of the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences. 

"Finding out more about what causes biological aging is really important. And, until now, there has been very little known about the relationship between sociality and aging within species," he added.

Some species use cooperative breeding systems to raise offspring. The parents are not the only ones responsible for the young members of the group; other adult members, called helpers, assist in caring for them. Sometimes those helpers are offspring from previous years.

In this work, the team analyzed over 15 years of data from the tiny island of Cousin about the warblers. They focused on calculating how fast the risk of death went up in an individual bird as it grew older, and they also assessed telomere length. Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes, and have been linked to aging.

“Our previous work has shown that telomere length can be a good indicator of an individual's biological condition relative to its actual age - a measure of an individual's biological age so to speak. So we can use it to measure how quickly different birds are aging,” noted Richardson. 

“In the Seychelles warbler the majority of helpers are female - and they assist with incubating the eggs and providing food for the chicks. This means that the parents don't need to do as much work when they have help,” he said. 

“We found that older dominant females really benefit from having female helpers - they lose less of their telomeres and are less likely to die in the near future. This shows they are aging slower than females without helpers. Interestingly, these older female mothers were also more likely to have female helpers. Meanwhile, the survival of elderly birds who were not assisted by helpers declined rapidly with age.

“The birds only need one female helper to show the effect of delayed aging, and indeed most only have either one or no helpers. Very few may have two or three helpers, but there were not enough of those to determine whether there would be a greater benefit in having more helpers."

"Our results suggest that for the older mothers, there are real benefits to cooperative breeding. Biologically speaking they stay 'younger' for longer, and they are more likely to live longer,” noted Dr. Martijn Hammers of the University of Groningen. “These findings may help to explain why social species often have longer lifespans.”

This work is still in the preliminary stages. The hypothesis needs to be confirmed in other species, a causal link still needs to be established, and many more questions have to be answered. 

“What we don't know yet is why some older individuals have helpers, which enable them to live longer, and some don't despite the obvious benefits. Further research is needed to confirm the causality of the associations we have found,” added Hammers.


Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! Via University of East Anglia, Nature Communications

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
DEC 11, 2019
Cancer
DEC 11, 2019
Altered DNA methylation controls genes in cancer
New research published in the journal Genome Biology provide new information on genomic structural variation via DNA methylation and its connection to gene...
DEC 11, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
DEC 11, 2019
Blue Light Exposure Shortens the Lifespan of Fruit Flies
Blue light caused damage even in flies that did not have eyes, and if given a choice, fruit flies will avoid blue light....
DEC 11, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
DEC 11, 2019
Familial Alzheimer's Gene Found to Regulate Nerve Development
An international team of scientists has now identified a process that plays a critical role in the growth of one part of neurons, the axon....
DEC 11, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
DEC 11, 2019
Even Different Species of Butterflies Can Easily Share Genes
After assessing the genomes of twenty species of butterflies, scientists were surprised to find that genes flow easily between them....
DEC 11, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
DEC 11, 2019
Learning More About Changes in Cancer Cell Identity
Cancer cells can change their identity and can take on new functions and characteristics, which is often rooted in epigenetic alterations....
DEC 11, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
DEC 11, 2019
22 Genes Discovered that Predict Skin Cancer from Sun Exposure
Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, with around 49 cases per 100,000 people. Now, researchers at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Researc...
Loading Comments...