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2006 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 5(4):685–692
Telomere Length Shortens with Body Length in
Nicole M. Scott1, Mark F. Haussmann1, Ruth M. Elsey2,
Phillip L. Trosclair III2, and Carol M. Vleck1,*
Abstract - In Alligator mississippiensis (American Alligator), body length increases
with age, but body length can be used as an accurate estimator of age only up to about
6–7 years, when growth rates slow considerably. Telomeres are repetitive DNA
sequences that cap the ends of each chromosome. Telomeres shorten with age in most
animals, but telomere shortening has not been examined in reptiles. We measured
telomere length in erythrocytes of A. mississippiensis varying between 5 and 240
cm in body length and found a negative relationship between telomere length and
body length (P < 0.01). Assuming that erythrocyte telomeres continue to shorten with
time, even after growth rate declines, those individuals with the shortest telomeres
should be the oldest members of the population. This method of estimating age, even
in animals of similar body size, should allow questions about age structure and
senescence to be addressed.
Knowledge of population dynamics may be a critical component in the
conservation and management of species. Age structure can be a major
determinant of population growth potential, but age is often difficult to
measure. Likewise, attempts to measure senescence as either age-specific
decreases in survival or fecundity depend on knowing the age of individuals.
For Alligator mississippiensis Daudin (American Alligators), current methods
of estimating age include tagging young animals or using age-specific
character measurements, such as body length and skeletochronology
(Tucker 1997). Each of these methods has shortcomings. For example, web
tags can be lost or tagged animals may leave the study area, and the validation
of skeletochronology in reptiles is labor intensive (Snover and Hohn
2004, Tucker 1997, Waye and Gregory 1998). Measurement of body length
to estimate age can be accurate in young animals, but becomes less accurate
when growth rates change with age, vary with local conditions, or differ
between sexes as they do in American Alligators (Chabreck and Joanen
1979, Rootes et al. 1991).
Telomere length has been proposed as an estimator of age in birds
(Haussmann and Vleck 2002) and humans (Tsuji et al. 2002), and it would
be useful to know whether telomere lengths could also be used to estimate
age in alligators. Telomeres are short repeated sequences of DNA found at
1Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University,
Ames, IA 50011. 2Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Grand Chenier,
LA 70643. *Corresponding author - firstname.lastname@example.org.
686 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 5, No. 4
the ends of linear eukaryotic chromosomes that, along with associated nucleoproteins,
function in stabilizing chromosomal end integrity (Blackburn
2001). Telomeres in somatic tissues tend to shorten with age, because DNA
polymerase is unable to replicate completely the 3' end of linear DNA with
each cell division (Watson 1972) and because of the effects of oxidative
stress (von Zglinicki 2000). As it is not known whether telomeres shorten
over time in long-lived reptiles such as alligators, our objective was to
determine whether telomeres are shorter in larger (and thus presumably
older) animals than in smaller (presumably younger) animals.
Animals and blood collection
We collected blood from 26 free-ranging alligators at the Rockefeller State
Wildlife Refuge in Grand Chenier, LA and from eight embryos from three
clutches collected in the wild and incubated at the refuge headquarters. None
of the free-ranging animals had been reared in captivity and released as part of
Louisiana’s egg-ranching program, a process that accelerates early growth
(Elsey et al. 2000). Six of the adult females were caught at their nest, so we
also know their clutch sizes. We knew the incubation age of the embryos (23
to 45 days), but did not know ages of the wild-caught individuals. Total body
lengths (TBL) were measured from the snout tip to tip of tail. Blood was
drawn from the spinal vein in wild-caught alligators (Zippel et al. 2003) or
from the umbilical vein in embryos. After marking, captured animals were
released. Approximate blood volumes collected were: 100 l from embryos, 1
ml from animals < 50 cm, and 10 ml from larger animals. Blood samples were
immediately placed in ice-cold 2% EDTA buffer, then later packed in ice and
shipped to Iowa State University. Samples were kept at 4 oC until the time of
DNA extraction, which occurred within three weeks of collection.
DNA isolation, digestion, and electrophoresis
We extracted DNA from erythrocytes (about 4 l) in 100-ml 0.8%-
agarose plugs using a CHEF DNA plug kit (Bio-Rad, Hercules, CA) to avoid
DNA shearing. Plugs were incubated overnight at 50 oC in 10 ml proteinase
K, followed by a three-hour incubation at 37 oC with PefaBloc to deactivate
residual proteinase K. We digested the DNA using a mixture of three
restriction enzymes: Hinf I, Hae III, and Hind III (50 U each) for 7 hours at
37 oC. Digested plugs were loaded onto a 0.8%-agarose gel and resolved
using pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (CHEF-DR II; Bio-Rad) for 21 hours
at 14 °C (3 V/cm with a switching time of 0.5–7.0 s and a current of 63–66
mA). After electrophoresis, the gel was hybridized to a 32P-labeled oligonucleotide
(TTAGGG)n that binds to the single stranded portion of each
telomere restriction fragment (TRF). Radioactive signaling of the 32P-labelled
TRFs was detected by a phosphor imager system (Typhoon 8600,
Molecular Dynamics, Sunnyvale, CA). Densitometry (ImageQuant V 1.2
and Telometric) was used to estimate mean TRF length of each telomeric
2006 N.M. Scott, M.F. Haussmann, R.M. Elsey, P.L. Trosclair III, and C.M. Vleck 687
smear (Fig 1). On each gel, we ran two different molecular markers, ranging
from 1 to 50 Kb (monocut and 1 Kb +). To estimate the mean length of the
TRFs in each lane (also referred to as telomere length), we used the formula:
TRF = (ODi Li)/ (ODi), where ODi is the densitometry output at position
i, and Li is the length of the DNA (bp) at position i. A single blood sample
was randomly selected to run in three lanes of each gel to test the uniformity
of DNA migration through each gel and to calculate inter-and intra-gel
variability. Intra- and inter-gel coefficients of variation were low (1.0% and
3.6% respectively), so the data from the two gels were combined.
We used linear regression to determine whether telomere length varied
with TBL, and analysis of covariance to examine the effect of sex on
telomere length, using TBL as the covariate.
We analyzed blood samples from 34 alligators ranging in size from 5
to 240 cm, including eight embryos and 26 wild-caught alligators, of which
12 could be identified as males and 12 as females. Mean telomere lengths
ranged from 34 to 27 Kb in animals that varied from 5 (embryos) to 240
cm in body length. There was a significant decrease in mean telomere
length with increasing total body length: TRF = 30.9 - 0.008TBL; F1, 32 =
6.9; P < 0.01, r2 = 0.18 (Fig. 2). Animals lost on average 8 base pairs of
Figure 1. Southern blot showing telomere restriction fragments from erythrocytes of
Alligator mississippiensis of different body lengths. Molecular-size markers are
shown in lanes 14 and 15 with the size of the markers (in Kb) indicated just to the
left. Hybridization of the telomeric probe to the single-stranded overhang of the
TRFs produces a smear because telomeres from different chromosomes and different
cell populations vary in length.
688 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 5, No. 4
telomere per cm of body growth. For the embryos, three individuals had
telomeres that did not fall within the 95% confidence interval for the
regression, but removing these data did not significantly change the relation
between body length and telomere length: TRF = 31.4 - 0.011TBL; F1,
29 = 25.7; P < 0.0001, r2 = 0.47; nor did removing the embryos altogether:
TRF = 30.8 - 0.008TBL; F1, 24 = 8.0; P < 0.01, r2 = 0.25.
Growth rates are known to differ between male and female alligators
(Rootes et al. 1991), so we examined telomere length as a function of sex
using total body length as a covariate for those individuals for whom we
knew the sex (determined by cloacal palpation). There was no effect of sex
on telomere length (P = 0.80), and no interaction between sex and body
length (P = 0.23).
We found that erythrocyte telomere restriction fragments shorten with
increasing body size in A. mississippiensis. In most taxa studied, telomere
restriction fragments are shorter in older animals (Allsopp et al. 1992, Delany
et al. 2000, Hastie et al. 1990, Haussmann et al. 2003). Peripheral blood cells do
not divide, so these telomere lengths presumably reflect the telomere lengths of
the hematopoietic stem cells. Hematopoietic stem cells may express some
Figure 2. Relationship between total body length and telomere restriction fragment
length measured in erythrocytes obtained from A. mississippiensis. The least squares
equation for the fit line is TRF = 30.9 - 0.008TBL; F1, 32 = 6.9; P < 0.01, r2 = 0.18.
2006 N.M. Scott, M.F. Haussmann, R.M. Elsey, P.L. Trosclair III, and C.M. Vleck 689
telomerase, an enzyme responsible for maintaining telomere length, but they
still lose telomeric repeats over time (Vaziri et al. 1994). Blood cells typically
have a high turnover rate (Chang and Harley 1995, Cline and Waldmann 1962),
and thus, blood is an excellent candidate tissue for aging studies.
We did not know the age of these free-living animals, but alligator
growth rates have been previously studied in coastal Louisiana wetlands
(Chabreck and Joanen 1979, Elsey et al. 1992, Rootes et al. 1991). Growth
rates of males and females do not differ significantly ( 36 cm/year) until
about 3 years of age, when animals have reached about 1 m in length (Elsey
et al. 1992). Growth rate then appears to decline more rapidly in females
than in males (Rootes et al. 1991). Thus males in the population can reach a
larger maximum size than females (> 4 m for males, 2.5 m for females),
and for adult animals of the same size, females are probably older than males
(Rootes et al. 1991). Given the different ages of males and females of the
same size, we predicted there should be an effect of sex on the relationship
between telomere length and body length. We did not find an effect of sex in
our data, probably because we did not have enough very large animals
(particularly males) to have the needed power to test this prediction.
Senescence is usually characterized by age-related decreases in survival
and fecundity. Others have suggested that long-lived turtles do not undergo
senescence (Congdon et al. 2003, Girondot and Garcia 1999). Senescence in
alligators, which can live for over 50 years (R.M. Elsey, unpubl. data) is
poorly studied, because it is difficult to determine age in the oldest individuals
in the population. Clutch sizes for A. mississippiensis at the Rockefeller
Wildlife Refuge can vary from 2 to 58 eggs, averaging about 39 (Joanen
1969). Small females that have just reached sexual maturity produce small
clutches (Giles and Childs 1949), and there is a positive relationship between
clutch size and body size in general for this population (R.M. Elsey,
unpubl. data). In our samples, the two largest females with the shortest
telomeres had the largest clutch sizes (40 and 41 eggs), and the shortest adult
female with the longest telomere had the smallest clutch size (26 eggs).
Some mature females have been described as barren (Joanen and McNease
1980), but it has been difficult to determine whether clutch size decreases in
the oldest animals (see Joanen 1969). Growth is very slow after about 20
years of age in females, making it difficult to identify the oldest individuals
in the population using only size as a reference. Turnover rate of red blood
cells in A. mississippiensis can be as short as 180 days at warm temperatures
and decreases at cold temperatures along with growth and metabolism
(Cline and Waldmann 1962). Assuming that the telomere-shortening rate of
erythrocytes we demonstrated can be extrapolated across the life span of
individuals as their blood cells continue to be replaced, the oldest animals
should have the shortest telomeres. This technique will not be useful to
provide a particularly accurate estimate of age of an individual; however, it
should make it possible to distinguish older individuals from younger individuals,
even when they are approximately the same body length. If blood
690 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 5, No. 4
samples can be collected from large females with known clutch sizes,
assigning relative age based on telomere length should allow us to identify
age-related decreases in fecundity, if they exist.
The telomere lengths of the eight embryos we measured were quite
variable, although generally longer than in the older alligators. In fact, the
range in telomere length of the embryos was greater than in the other 26
individuals. These embryos were all alive when sacrificed between 23 and
45 days of incubation, but it is uncertain whether they all would have
hatched. The eggs originated from three clutches, but there was no effect of
clutch of origin or days of incubation on telomere length (P > 0.38). Embryos
of many organisms exhibit high activity of telomerase, an enzyme that
can maintain telomere length in the face of very high cell division (Xu and
Yang 2000), and telomere length may actually increase during development
(Schaetzlein et al. 2004). Telomere dynamics during embryonic development
may differ from that in post-hatching individuals because of a different
balance between cell replication rate and telomerase activity (Forsyth et al.
2002), but this needs further study.
Telomere restriction fragment lengths in A. mississippiensis are long
relative to those in many birds and mammals (Frenck et al. 1998, Haussmann
et al. 2003, Hemann and Greider 2000), although the domesticated lab
mouse Mus spretus Lataste is known to have ultralong telomeres (Kipling
and Cooke 1990) as are some birds (Delany et al. 2000). Girandot and Garcia
(1998) reported telomere lengths in Emys obicularis Lineaus (European
Freshwater Turtles) of about 20 Kb, while Paitz et al. (2004) reported
telomeres in Chrysemys picta Gray (Painted Turtles) of about 60 Kb. Recently,
telomeres of only about 14.5 Kb were reported in Thamnophys
elegans Smith and Smith (Garter Snakes) (Reid et al. 2004). In general,
chelonians and crocodilians live considerably longer than squamates, so
there may be a functional relationship between absolute telomere length and
lifespan, although this has not been found within birds and mammals
(Kipling and Cooke 1990, Vleck et al. 2003). The measured length of
telomere restriction fragments, however, varies with technique used (Delany
et al. 2000, Haussmann et al. 2005), so caution needs to be used in making
interspecific and cross-study comparisons.
In conclusion, we have demonstrated that erythrocyte telomeres shorten
with increasing body length in A. mississippiensis. It seems reasonable that the
oldest individuals in the population will have the shortest telomeres, and
identification of these individuals should allow us to address questions regarding
whether potentially long-lived crocodilians exhibit senescence in the wild.
V. Lance, D. Vleck, C. Sanneman, and the staff of the Rockefeller State Wildlife
Refuge provided invaluable assistance in the field. We thank D. Vleck and A.
Bronikowski for useful comments on the manuscript, and W. Parke Moore III for
administrative assistance. This research was supported in part by National Institute
2006 N.M. Scott, M.F. Haussmann, R.M. Elsey, P.L. Trosclair III, and C.M. Vleck 691
of Health grant RO3-AG022207, National Science Foundation grant IBN 0080194,
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