As many of you may or may not know this Tuesday was the 203rd anniversary of the birth of the great Charles Darwin (FRS). As his theory of evolution by natural selection is the basis for our current understanding of the natural world and everything that we do at the CEC we celebrate this yearly event in style, by inviting an eminent scientist to speak and then eating and drinking far too much. Being biologists, and having our priorities right, the festivities known as ‘Darwin Day’ were this year held on valentines day.
The ‘phylum feast’ (the eating and drinking part) was a fantastic success with everything from duck and snails too seaweed and ladybird cakes on offer, see below, however the real star of the show was our guest speaker Professor Pat Monaghan. A leader in the field of behavioural ecology her talk, entitled ‘Growing up and growing old – links across life history stages’, focused mainly on her work on birds, certain species of which she has used as study systems (she disapproves of the term model organism) to investigate life history strategies and trade-offs.
Her research in this area is extensive and has shown that both oxidative stress and elevated stress hormones influence telomere shortening (telomeres cap chromosome ends) which itself is linked to cell and organism senescence. One study on zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) I thought was particularly pertinent considering our chosen day of celebration.
The first part of this study demonstrated that a short period of early-life (post-natal) stress, induced by experimentally increasing glucocorticoid stress hormones, resulted in individuals having increased stress sensitivity and reduced adult life spans. The really interesting findings however came from the effect that this had on their mating partners. If one of these ‘stressed’ individuals paired with a ‘non-stressed’ individual the ‘non-stressed’ individual would have a significantly shorter lifespan than if it had paired up with another ‘non-stressed’ individual, irrespective of sex. The differences were staggering:
“Only 5 per cent of control birds with control partners had died after 3 years, compared with over 40 per cent in early stress-early stress pairs”
The effect on the ‘non-stressed’ partner bird also persisted even after the partnership was terminated.
Luckily we are not zebra finches…………………….
Happy Valentines/Darwin day one and all!
Monaghan, P., Heidinger, B., D’Alba, L., Evans, N., & Spencer, K. (2011). For better or worse: reduced adult lifespan following early-life stress is transmitted to breeding partners Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279 (1729), 709-714 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1291