Climate change takes toll on fairy wrens, Monash University researchers find

Hot, dry weather damages the DNA of fairy queen nestlings, causing them to age earlier and die younger, according to research that has implications for the effect of climate warming on other species, including humans.

Biologists from Monash University conducted a 17-year study of a population of endangered purple-crowned fairy wrens in Western Australia’s Kimberley, and used blood samples to measure part of their DNA called a telomere.

A purple-crowned fairy wren.

A purple-crowned fairy wren. Credit:Doug Adams

Telomeres are bits of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that keep them from fraying or tangling (like the aglets on the ends of shoelaces). When they become too short to do their job, the aging process is accelerated.

One of the researchers, Professor Anne Peters of the university’s School of Biological Sciences, said the study found that wrens raised in warm and dry conditions had shorter telomeres.

Credit:Gary Oliver

As a result, these nestlings had a reduced ability to deal with further DNA damage, meaning they aged earlier and died younger, Peters said.

It seems that the hotter it gets, the worse the damage to the telomeres of the week-old nestlings. But this only applies when it’s dry – when it’s wet, the birds’ DNA isn’t affected.

“If telomeres become too short, the cell becomes inoperable and they stop working,” says Peters. “On a body level you start to age. If that takes too long, you will die. Long telomeres are great; short telomeres are not”.

The finding, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, builds on previous research by Monash, which found that the telomeres in seven-day-old nestlings predicted how long they would live and how many young they would produce.

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