Assortative pairing by telomere length in king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and relationships with breeding success

Quentin Schull, Vincent A. Viblanc, F. Stephen Dobson, Jean-Patrice Robin, Sandrine Zahn, Robin Cristofari, Pierre Bize, Francois Criscuolo

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Telomeres are non-coding genetic repeats protecting the ends of linear chromosomes. Long telomeres are often associated with high individual survival, and inter-individual variation in telomere length has recently been proposed as a proxy for individual quality. Therefore, one might expect individuals of either sex with long telomeres to be of higher intrinsic quality and to be preferred in the context of mate choice. Thus, in sexually monomorphic species where individuals discriminate mates on the basis of signals of intrinsic quality, mate choice should lead to assortative pairing by telomere length, and it should be associated with breeding performance. We tested these two predictions in the king penguin, a sexually monomorphic seabird. Over 3 years of study and 73 penguin pairs under contrasting environmental conditions, we found strong assortative pairing by telomere length. Interestingly, only female telomere length was positively associated to chick survival up to fledging, and this relationship was only apparent when foraging conditions at sea were average. The positive link between telomere length and breeding success confirmed that telomere length is somehow related to individual biological state at a given time. The proximate mechanisms by which birds assess individual state related to telomere length remains to be discovered.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)639-647
Number of pages8
JournalCanadian Journal Of Zoology/Revue Canadien De Zoologie
Issue number6
Early online date26 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018


  • telomere
  • penguins
  • assortative mating
  • reproduction
  • sexual selection


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