Early-life environment effects on telomere dynamics in European badgers
Lead supervisor: Dr Hannah Dugdale (U Leeds)
Co-supervisors: Dr Amanda Bretman (U Leeds), Prof David Macdonald (U Oxford), Dr Chris Newman (U Oxford)
Death is inevitable, but the quality of life prior to death varies enormously. This is because individuals differ in the point and rate at which they senesce – senescence being the loss of function with age, from the cellular to the organism level. Our understanding of the factors that affect senescence is limited: Within a species, are some individuals better able to buffer against senescence due to physiological adaptations (such as greater oxidative damage resistance and longer protective chromosome caps – termed telomeres), environmental effects (e.g. born in years with high food availability), or social conditions (e.g. low levels of intra-sexual competition)? This PhD project will investigate these questions, using data from a natural population subject to variable environmental and social conditions. This will generate critical knowledge that will improve our understanding how and why some individuals live longer, healthier lives than others, potentially contributing to both human and animal health interventions.
This PhD has the exciting opportunity to use long-term data from a wild population of European badgers in Wytham Woods, Oxford, UK. These badgers live in social groups of variable size that on average have six adult males and six adult females. Within this population female badgers show an earlier onset and a shallower rate of reproductive senescence than males, but it is not clear why these sex differences in senescence occur. In another UK badger population, sex differences in somatic senescence rates have been linked to the level of intra-sexual competition that individuals experience in the first two years of adulthood. It is also apparent that stressful environmental conditions in early life, such as low food availability and exposure to disease, can accelerate senescence. This PhD will therefore use telomeres as a bio-molecular measure of senescence, in relation to somatic, actuarial and reproductive senescence. This is important as we currently have very little understanding of how both the onset and the rate of senescence, from the bio-molecular to reproductive levels, are influenced by environmental conditions.
The student wil