Telomere length can be considered as an indicator of an organism's somatic state, long telomeres reflecting higher energy investment in self-maintenance. Early-life is a period of intense investment in somatic growth and in physiological maturation but how this is reflected in telomere length remains unclear. Using European starling chicks we tested: (i) how telomere length measured at asymptotic mass is related to proxies of somatic growth and physiological maturity in 17-day-old nestlings; (ii) how telomere length measured at 17 days then predicts the changes in somatic and physiological maturity occurring in fledglings (between 17 and 21 days); (iii) how growth and telomere length co-vary when chicks are under experimentally good (fed) growth conditions. Depending on environmental conditions, our data suggest links between somatic growth, physiological maturation and body maintenance parameters (positive with oxidative stress and negative with telomere length) in nestlings. Telomere length measured at day 17 predicted a subsequent change in physiological maturation variables observed in fledglings, but only in second-brood chicks: chicks with shorter telomeres had a higher pre-fledging rate of increase in haematocrit and haemoglobin content and a greater decrease in reticulocyte count. Finally, food supplementation of chicks did not change telomere length compared with that in control siblings. Our results suggest that physiological maturation prior to fledging may occur at the expense of telomere length but only when environmental conditions are sub-optimal.
Member of collection