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Biol Lett. 2018 Mar;14(3). pii: 20180083. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2018.0083.

Urban blackbirds have shorter telomeres.

Author information

Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences, University of Groningen, 9700 CC Groningen, The Netherlands
Department of Wetland Ecology, Estación Biológica de Doñana-CSIC, 41092 Seville, Spain.
Departament of Biodiversity, Ecology and Evolution, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 28040 Madrid, Spain.
FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, DST-NRF Centre of Excellence, University of Cape Town, 7701 Cape Town, South Africa.
Section of Ecology, Department of Biology, University of Turku, 20014 Turku, Finland.
UMR CNRS 6282, Biogéosciences, Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, 21000 Dijon, France.
Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences, University of Groningen, 9700 CC Groningen, The Netherlands.


Urbanization, one of the most extreme human-induced environmental changes, represents a major challenge for many organisms. Anthropogenic habitats can have opposing effects on different fitness components, for example, by decreasing starvation risk but also health status. Assessment of the net fitness effect of anthropogenic habitats is therefore difficult. Telomere length is associated with phenotypic quality and mortality rate in many species, and the rate of telomere shortening is considered an integrative measure of the 'life stress' experienced by an individual. This makes telomere length a promising candidate for examining the effects of urbanization on the health status of individuals. We investigated whether telomere length differed between urban and forest-dwelling common blackbirds (Turdus merula). Using the terminal restriction fragment assay, we analysed telomere length in yearlings and older adults from five population dyads (urban versus forest) across Europe. In both age classes, urban blackbirds had significantly shorter telomeres (547 bp) than blackbirds in natural habitats, indicating lower health status in urban blackbirds. We propose several potential hypotheses to explain our results. Our findings show that even successful city dwellers such as blackbirds pay a price for living in these anthropogenic habitats.


birds; human-induced environmental change; telomeres; urbanization

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